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Fire on X-Press Pearl: Theories vs Science

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Navy personnel attired in protective gear cleaning debris from the stricken ship, which washed ashore. (File photo)

There is nothing we can do now for the disastrous fire on the container ship X-Press Pearl. This will certainly have serious environmental implications, where we must be guided by science rather than personal theories. Some of the academics who have their own explanations, will only confuse the general public to the extent of giving up eating fish, which is our main protein source. When these theories are given over the media there is so much hype that people tend to accept all what they say.

The shipping company is at fault for not properly containing the leak in a container transporting concentrated nitric acid. This acid is highly corrosive, as well as a strong oxidising agent. Generally, transporting such a strong acid, along with highly oxidisable organic compounds, is highly undesirable. We are not sure how the nitric acid was packed inside the container. An inert packing material such as vermiculite, which is a silicate mineral, should have been used as packing to absorb any accidental spills. In the case of a leak from a container, it should be first soaked in this type of adsorbent material, and after soaking the acid in this manner the adsorbent with the acid can be washed away with water, using a high pressure water hose. Ship crews should be trained in such disposal procedures when they transport such dangerous cargo. Shipping crews may not have a good knowledge of the chemistry involved, but they could have contacted experts on the ground with specialized knowledge in hazardous waste disposal.

There is one theory that the nitric acid spill is going to destroy the corals. There is no scientific basis for this argument. Nitric acid added to the vast expanse of the ocean gets diluted to harmless levels. NASA scientists have estimated that nitric acid formed due to lightning, which comes down with the rain, annually amounts to 8.4 million metric tons world-wide. This is part of the nitrogen cycle in nature which has been going on for millions of years. Similarly, sodium methoxide undergoes ready hydrolysis, giving sodium hydroxide and methanol, and their biological effects are minimal considering dilution in the ocean.

Some scientists have claimed that this fire will result in acid rain. Acid rain is caused by the burning of fossil fuel and coal producing sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. These dissolve in water and come down as sulphuric and nitric acids giving acid rain. While theoretically acid rain from the ship fire is a valid argument, looking at the cargo contents there are no sulphur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide sources, and only burning of ship fuel can result in sulphur dioxide which can cause acid rain. Also, since there is only one container of nitric acid, the amount of nitrogen dioxide produced will not be significant, particularly if the nitric acid goes into sea water. Vehicles in Colombo city during the combustion of fuel produce more than the possible emissions from this ship. By all accounts so far, fuel tanks are intact and apart from an oil spill, there is less likelihood of these burning, now that the ship is under water.

The real environmental issues are the plastic pellets and oil spills, and not acid rain or nitric acid. These plastic beads belong to the groups, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) according to the inventory of cargo. What is really disturbing is the fate of the plastic pellets, which are washing ashore, polluting our beaches and ending up in fish. Plastic microfibres have been detected in marine fish for some time since oceans throughout the world are getting heavily polluted with plastics. Very small strands of microplastics are everywhere including our homes. For instance, our own clothes are made up of polymers which give out these, and this matter has received attention from scientists in the last few years. Similarly, soft toys and other plastic toys peel off during use and these are present in the air we breathe. Plastics can remain for at least a hundred years without breakdown. Government agencies such as the Central Environmental Authority, Marine Environment Protection Authority and National Aquatic Research Agency can undertake to monitor the presence of microplastic fibres in the flesh of fish. It is a simple test, involving observing the flesh under the microscope.

If we look at the information available, the ship carried a total of 1886 containers and the distribution of cargo (along with the number of containers in brackets) is as follows: nitric acid (1), 25,000 bags of LDPE and HDPE each weighing 25 kg (55), caustic soda (42), urea (88), lead ingots (8), lubricants (30) methanol, sodium ethoxide, vehicles and other miscellaneous items (rest of the containers). The greatest environmental concern here are the LDPE and HDPE pellets, and the lubricant oils, which can cause oil spills along with the 325 tons of ship fuel.

The question arises as to what can be done to deal with the enormous amount of plastic wastes collected in our beaches. Our plastics industry imports this product as a raw material in large quantities, to produce films for food packaging, which accounts for about 55% of global consumption. Our familiar shopping bags are also made from this polymer, and there are many other applications with injection moulding, which include household goods, toys and sporting goods, caps and various medical devices.

I wish to propose that the accumulated plastic beads be used for the plastics industry and they should be encouraged to reuse the plastic beads washed ashore. A simple gravity separation can separate the sand from the beads. Immersion in sea water, with a higher density than freshwater, can separate the beads from sand, and there is a possibility of reusing these pellets. Some of the bags collected by those who thronged the beach can be purchased, and the initiative of the plastics industry is critical in dealing with the plastic problem.

The damage to the environment caused by the X-Press is enormous, and it is doubtful whether Sri Lanka can at least partially recover the cost of the damage by way of compensation from the ship owners. In the earlier incident involving New Diamond, the Attorney General claimed damages for Rs. 3.4 billion, and according to what a government Minister stated at a recent news conference, only around Rs. 400 million has been paid. It is not clear whether Sri Lanka has signed the appropriate conventions to deal with compensation. Some of these conventions are the Bunker convention (2001), Athens convention (2002) and the London convention on limitation of liability for maritime claims (1996). For instance, Canada has enacted the Marine Liability Act in 2018 to make sure that in the event of an oil spill, compensation is available for the victims and other responders. Environmental remediation is also 100% compensable irrespective of the size of the spill.

The danger of oil pollution from 30 containers containing lubricants and the 325 tons of engine fuel should receive the attention of authorities, to procure the equipment and chemicals needed for its remediation. More importantly, we should have personnel with the necessary expertise to deal with the problem of extensive oil pollution. Oil booms are a popular and most widely used method for oil clean up, due to their simplicity and easier execution. This method has to be carried out immediately after the oil spill is detected. Once the oil is bounded by oil booms, it has to be extracted with the use of skimmers to scoop up the oil. The most effective way is to use adsorbents, and some cheap materials available for this purpose are peat moss, vermiculite and paddy straw. If the oil spill has not dispersed, it is even possible to burn the oil since oil floats on sea water. In addition, dispersants which are chemically similar to the detergents used for household washing, are used for the remediation of oil spills. These break the oil droplets into a smaller size, which makes it easier to mix with water, and the oil eating microbes will eventually ingest and break down these smaller globules.

Prof. O. A. ILLEPERUMA



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Opinion

Online education – an alternative

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By Dr. Rasanjalee Abeywickrama

Education is a weapon that can improve one’s life. It is a most important tool that helps to spread knowledge in society, which is a most noteworthy benefit of Education. Furthermore, it acts as a medium that transfers knowledge from one generation to another.

Education helps to boost a country’s economy and society; therefore, it is a milestone of a nation’s development. It offers knowledge and skills to the populace, while shaping the personality of the youth of a nation. Education is generally considered the foundation of society which beckons economic wealth, social prosperity and political stability. Economic and social status depends on individual education, since it contributes to individual capability in managing the quality of life. The main purpose of education is to prepare and qualify them for work, to play their part in a country’s economy, as well as to integrate people into society by teaching them the values and morals of society.

Education, for a child, begins at home. It is a lifelong process and determines the quality of an individual’s life. Education improves one’s knowledge and skills, and develops personality and attitude. Students must be equipped with knowledge and skills which are necessary to participate effectively as members of society and contribute towards the development of shared values and common identity.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still haunting the human race and it will be completing its horrible journey of two years within another five months. It has changed the whole world and lives of each and everyone around the globe. There cannot be anyone who has not been affected by this virus at least once, economically, physically and psychologically. While man is busy planning to go to Mars, this microorganism is busy taking the lives of millions on earth and taking away all the freedom which man had on earth, including the freedom to breathe. While it has affected all the sectors and trades, education is one of the most affected sectors.

There are several ways this virus has affected education. The loss of livelihoods of thousands of parents has caused a financial crisis and education of their kids has been affected, dramatically. Schools remained closed for much of the time, since March 2020. Kids were unable to go to school continuously, at least for one to two months, for over 15 months now. Physical engagement with peer groups and teachers is completely hampered due to shifting to online education, where kids will only be able to talk to each other and to the teacher through a screen which looks so artificial. It does not provide the actual interaction, which is essential, especially for kids in primary grades and early childhood education.

Some kids are at least fortunate enough to gather some knowledge through online platforms as they have access to relevant electronic equipment and network connections. Sadly, kids in low income families are not fortunate enough to obtain such facilities. Some kids who were supposed to be in Grade 1, during the year 2021, have not yet been to school for at least one day, but applications are already called for year 2022 Grade 1 school admissions, which shows how much time, from their early childhood education, has been wasted. This would adversely affect all of them as early childhood education is not solely about developing learning and writing skills, but about social engagement and social development, via engaging in activities with peer groups.

Education should enhance cognitive, social-emotional and behavioural dimensions of learning. It should also ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all, wherein no one is left behind. This has become a challenging task with the ongoing pandemic situation. Though online education is not the best option, it is the only option available for kids of this generation. But there are many practical issues related to access to laptops, desktops, smartphones and internet connections. In many areas, kids have to climb trees to get internet connections. Huts have been constructed on tree tops to enable kids to follow online classes. Therefore, we need to look for better and more effective ways to continue the education of kids.

The most effective way to handle this issue of online learning, at the moment, is to telecast educational programmes, in the morning or afternoon hours instead of repeat telecasts of teledramas, TV shows or any other entertainment programmes. If all the national TV channels can work towards this, it will offer a practical solution to the problems associated with online education. Since all children are at home these days, it is an efficient way not only to educate them, but also to reduce the damage caused to their brain development due to watching unsuitable content on TV. Even radio stations can help in this regard.

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Opinion

The country they saved

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Many YouTube videos are accessible on the Internet, which show interviews with retired/injured soldiers who were with the Sri Lanka Army during the period 2005-2009. They proudly talk about how they fought, how they got injured, how they re-joined the battle, after recovery, and how they saw their friends and higher officers get killed. Without any sadness in their voices, they show their wounded limbs and blinded eyes. Most of us who were not in the battlefield, too, can be somewhat satisfied by thinking about our much lesser contributions – donation of blood, donation of money towards various funds such as “Api Wenuwen Api” (although not sure what happened to those), helping families of soldiers, etc.  

Many would now feel sad about those injured soldiers and the ones who made the ultimate sacrifice to safeguard this country, when seeing how this country is managed by some politicians, who claim that they were the people who saved this country.

 

B P

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Opinion

Special rules for UK-SL MPs cricket

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The High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to the UK, Saroja Sirisena, responding to a call by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, met the Speaker on May 24 at his office at the House of Commons, while the Lion Flag fluttered in front of the House of Commons on the occasion. Our lady diplomat, as per The Island report on 31st May, proposed and, ‘…both agreed that a friendly exchange of cricket between the members of the two Parliaments would be a fine opportunity to celebrate there shared love of cricket.’

Being concerned of the risk of conversion of the gentlemen’s game into a “Parliamentarian’s one”, shall we propose an amended 13-point set of rules applicable only to our legislators.

1. “Scrap retired hurt” phenomenon altogether as they will never dream of ‘retiring’, worse they do not understand what ‘hurt’ means.

2. Out!, and back in the pavilion, can be re-called by the Captain under “National team player” to the middle, to continue batting.

3. Ministers, who rush Bills for speedy enactments are best suited as Pace bowlers, but they will have to compete with ‘swing both-ways’ experts.

4. Talented ‘googley’ bowlers are in abundance, but English MPs are good readers of the googley; more prudent choice would be a specialist ‘Chinamen’, [there is no dearth of them either], further, the opponents do have little experience in facing them and would naturally be extra nervous to hear the first syllable of the word.

5. Sixers should be banned altogether, for they being highly skilled masters of the art will effortlessly hit every ball for a ‘SIX’.

6. Sledging, supported by familiar un-parliamentary vocabulary can be used excessively, as the opponents will not understand them, however, as a precautionary measure, the stump microphone should be disconnected from commentary.

7. Media should be allowed in the field to get voice cuts blaming the opponents, after every bungling by themselves.

8. English team has done their ‘home-work’ using freely available data : will demand free access for Agents of Bookies at the Lanka dressing room, with the idea of winning the game easily. However, such motivation can be countered by displaying 11 ultra-luxury SUVs on the grounds [as prizes for the winners]

9. A special sitting of the House prior to the match, to propose and pass a handsome match-fee for the players, would be an added incentive.

10. To compensate for their lack of experience and knowledge in playing on a level field, a ‘20%’ [a familiar numerical] bonus of runs or wickets can be granted.

11. In fairness to the Englishmen, any attempt to play a Dil-scoop using more familiar hands, minus the bat, should not be allowed.

12. The two field umpires plus 3rd, 4th umpires and match referee should be provided with special security in the event of a loss to the local team.

13. The moment the English side appealed against a Lankan batsmen, before the Umpire delivered his verdict, the bodyguards should rush to the field to prevent untoward incidents happening.

KKSP

 

 

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