Connect with us


Fire on X-Press Pearl: Theories vs Science



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.


Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Jayantha Dhanapala, a star in a Trinity galaxy



It was about one and a half years ago that I contacted Jayantha Dhanapala to find his Kandy address in order to send him two of my books. On that day he informed me of the death of Mr SML Marikkar, his classmate at Trinity College, Kandy and my student to whom I had taught the classical languages. In an appreciation of Mr. Marikkar I had used the well known Latin dictum, “seniores priores” to indicate that in death too the older should take precedence over the younger as in matters of ordinary life.

As I commenced teaching the classical languages I was more than surprised that I had to teach another subject to the students of the University Entrance class . It so happened that the students learning this subject were an exceedingly outstanding group of Arts and Science students. Among them were Jayantha, Marikkar, Sarath Amunugama, Arjuna Aluvihare, Nihal Perera, Breckenridge and Karaliyadde.

The subject was called General English, a motley combination of general knowledge, language, precis writing and current affairs . In my school by the Beira this subject was taught by the Rector, Very Rev. Fr. Peter Pillai, a mathematician turned a teacher of Government to senior students.

Why the Trinity Principal, Mr Norman Walter selected me, a green horn, to teach this subject was a mystery to me. Sometimes I was out of depth. Some of these outstanding students would help me by raising very appropriate questions in class before I got “drowned.” They were Jayantha Dhanapala, SML Marikkar, and Sarath Amunugama. The last two later joined the Civil Service. Sarath even became my boss when I returned to the public service, the SLAS, after premature retirement with full pension rights.

Jayantha won the open Essay prize at Trinity in his final year. The English teacher Rev. Eliott shortlisted the competing essayists selecting two Jayantha’s and JKL Pereira’s as the two best and asked me to be the final arbiter. Though my talents were elsewhere, in the logic of grammar and in figures and less in literature it was clear that Jayantha should be the winner.

JKLP, who came second, like me chose accountancy as a profession. After finishing the English Honours degree with a good second class, Jayantha had a short stint at my old school at Maradana. In the first Administrative Service examination held, after the abolition of the Civil Service, he was placed first. But he chose the diplomatic service.

I heard that he had chosen to learn Mandarin Chinese as one of the foreign languages that young diplomats were required to learn. He later progressed in his career up to the top as an Under Secretary to the Sec. General of the United Nations. I remember reading in the media how President Clinton had paid a tribute to him on his handling of the complex affairs with regard to the nuclear arms proliferation and disarmament.

I had not met Jayantha while he was serving in the UN. It was only when he attended meetings of the Peradeniya Jayatilleke Hall old boys reunions that I came face to face with him after 50 years or so. He would have been surprised to see me at these reunions ,sometimes playing the piano accordion accompanying the ageing old boys of J Hall singing old favourites. Among them were Rev Fr. Derrick Mendis and his cousin Rev Fr. Egerton Perera, both of whom had qualified as Chartered Accountants and had dedicated themselves to a life of poverty as Jesuits. Sadly they are no more.

Jayantha could have reached the top in the UN outfit had the then SL government sponsored his candidacy with greater vigour. Even in the case of his classmate, Sarath Amunugama, had the recommendation of the late Prof. Carlo Fonseka that Aumunugama be the second in command in managing the affairs of the country been realized, the world and our country would have been better places.

May Jayantha Dhanapala’s soul rest in Peace.

Dr Leo Fernando,

Talahena Negombo.

Continue Reading


TImely action must be taken to preserve Buddhism in Sri Lanka



As reported on the first page of Sunday Island (June 4) it is indeed very praiseworthy for the government authorities to have taken timely action to safeguard the most venerated Bo tree in the world. It is both an object of worship and symbol of national sovereignty on the majority Buddhist island of 22 million people. It is a well established fact that a sapling of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi was brought to Ceylon by none other than Indian Emperor Ashoka’s daughter Sangamitta Maha theri, who established the Bhikkuni sasana here.

However it is sad to note that presently the Bhikkuni sasana is not given the due recognition it deserves in our country, though it is common knowledge that our Buddha sasana comprises of Bhikku, Bhikkuni, upasaka and upasika. It is very difficult to fathom why the government authorities are not issuing Bhikkuni Identity cards, while the Bhikkus even though some break the vinaya rules in public from time to time are allowed to continue with their Bhikku identity cards. Why the double standard? Therefore it is of great importance that Buddhists rise up to the occasion and demand that government issue Bhikkuni Identity cards and give them the due recognition they deserve to have in our society.

If timely action is not taken to rectify the situation to protect the Bhikkuni Sasana, it will face the same fate as the Dhamma Chakraya, which symbolizes the Eight Fold Path preached by The Buddha in his first sermon to the Pasvaga mahanunun, after attaining Buddha hood. The ancient Dhamma Chakraya is correctly depicted in all Emperor Ashoka’s pillars which were erected in Buddhist places of worship in India, under his direction and guidance. Needless to say it is in the shape of a cart wheel with eight spokes connecting to the outer circle depicting the Eight Fold Path. It was also accepted as the Buddhist symbol here after Emperor Ashoka’s son Arahat Mahinda Threra introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka.

However, presently due to unknown reasons the Dhamma Chakraya has taken the form of the helm, (the wheel connected to the rudder to steer a ship), with projections from the outer circle. Presently 90% of the Buddhist establishments, TV channels and print media use this wheel as the symbol of Buddhism which is an incorrect depiction of the original Dhamma Chakraya. Thus it is equally important to take timely action to rectify this to contribute towards stability and continuity of the Buddha Sasana for posterity.

R. W. W.

Continue Reading


Appreciation: Nalini de Lanerolle



Peradeniya with its soaring architecture reminiscent of auspicious traditions melding the grace of the sculptured rock and incredible richness of greenery and extravagant streamers and showers of glowing flowers in the space of 1956 to 1959 merged Nalini de Lanerolle’s (then de Silva’s) stores of reading and imagination to a vision of the past in all its splendor.

She graduated from the University of Peradeniya in 1959 where she majored in Sociology. She married Asoka de Lanerolle in 1960, and became the mother of a girl and two boys. From 1960 to 1972, she was a Librarian in the Ministry of Planning; from 1973 to 1975 she was an Instructor in English at the University of Colombo.

Energetic in temperament, she had many interests. She read extensively from teen-hood: a vast variety of books ranging from the classics to murder mysteries and science fiction to movie magazines and historical novels. In Sinhala, she mentioned having enjoyed W.A. Silva’s Vijayaba Kollaya and Martin Wickramasinghe’s Rohini, at Visakha. She was appointed to the panel which judged the annual Sinhala Drama Festival. She was also a member of the panel appointed to evaluate films and performers regularly. Le Roy Robinson’s “An Interview with Nalini de Lanerolle on Aspects of Culture in Sri Lanka” reveals the scope of her reflections which enriched readers through ‘The Reign of Ten Kings – Sri Lanka – The World 500 B.C. – 1200 A.D.

Alert in judgment, she had had an active mind and capacious imagination which turned mere curiosity to tough questions with firm answers. Why do the Apollo Belvedere and the Gandhara Buddha show distinct traces of similarity? Was there a King Arthur?

Nalini de Lanerolle has not only satisfied her own musings; in her book she has deftly interwoven facts from Lanka’s chronicles and periods of European history to throw light. To quote Manik de Silva “She has done some innovative historical researching and found exciting parallels of kings and epics in the East and West during the same periods.”

According to Sir Arthur C. Clarke ‘The Reign of Ten Kings’ is an “excellent and much neededpiece of research. I hope that her book will bring to the attention of a large audience some of the most remarkable architectural and cultural achievements in history …”.

Nalini in her interview with Le Roy Robins attributes her interest in history to her father, a Government Surveyor who travelled widely in the country and who told stories of Greek Gods to his children pointing out the constellations including Orion striding across the night sky. Her mother too inspired her, reading to her in Sinhala from Milindapanha, which she later discovered was about the questions posed to an Indo-Greek ruler, a contemporary of King Dutugamunu. Parallels always interested her. As she says to Le Roy Robins “I think I was a history addict. It began with the stories of all those kings – King Arthur included.”

Her husband, Asoka de Lanerolle took a keen interest in history as well and to quote her “my husband Asoka has been interested in most of my thinking regarding history, so he has always urged me to write”. I tried out the idea of parallels in history on him and he encouraged me feeling it was “a different way of writing a history of Sri Lanka”.

Asoka having gained his high school education at Royal, graduated from the University of Peradeniya with an Honors degree in Economics and began his career as an Assistant Lecturer in Economics. He then became a Foreign Service diplomat, and later the Marketing Manager at Lever Brothers Ceylon.

In 1972 he was nominated as the Eisenhower Exchange student from Sri Lanka, giving them both the opportunity of living for seven months in the USA and travelling widely soaking in the history of a different continent. When he joined the UN International Trade Center in Geneva, and worked in Somalia, Bangladesh and Nigeria, Nalini travelled extensively enjoying glimpses of history like the sale of frankincense (one of the three gifts to baby Jesus by the kings) in Somalian market places.

She took great pleasure in all her children being avid readers despite the advent of televisions and in the fact that they all strongly supported the publication of her book, helping her by taking photographs, doing line drawings and cross-checking all the years mentioned in the book.

We have lost a historian and an intellectual, one who sought knowledge and thought, for the pleasure it gave – who has left to her country men and visitors to the island and enchanting and enlightening volume.

Dr. Lakshmi de Silva

Continue Reading