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X-Press Pearl fire: SC moved against local agent Sea Consortium Lanka and 12 others  

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Focus: Info on leaking nitric acid container withheld for over 10 days

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A high-profile investigation into the circumstances that led to MV X-Press Pearl carrying a leaking container loaded with nitric acid being allowed to reach Colombo has taken a new turn with the revelation its local agent Sea Consortium Lanka of Setmil Group suppressed information about the acid leak.

This was revealed before Colombo Additional Magistrate Shalani Perera on Monday (7) in the wake of submissions made by Deputy Solicitor General Madawa Tennakoon.

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), last week, moved the Supreme Court against the Sea Consortium Lanka as well as operators of the vessel, X-Press Feeders. Authorities are in a quandary over the unexpected revelation that may compel the government to take action against the local agent pending investigations.

DSG Tennakoon named the Presidential Award winner Sea Consortium Lanka as the vessel’s local agent. Following the questioning of the vessel’s Russian Captain Tyutkalo Vitaly, the inves tigators have established that specific information furnished by the vessel to the local agent pertaining to the leaking container had been withheld. Subsequently, the relevant e-mails had been deleted, the court has been told.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) also recorded the statements of the ship’s Chief Engineer Sadilenko Oleg, a Russian and Chief Officer Peter Anish, an Indian. Their passports have been impounded. They were among 25 member crew evacuated by Sri Lanka Shipping Company owned tug ‘Hercules’ on May 25 following an explosion aboard the vessel, while a fire had engulfed some containers stacked on its deck.

The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl sank on June 2, 9.5 nautical miles North West of Colombo port, the day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa directed that it be towed to deeper seas. Shipping sources told The Island that the vessel went down where it had been since May 19 after entering Sri Lankan waters.

Additional Magistrate Perera has directed the Sea Consortium to furnish the originals of the e-mails from mail servers located abroad.

Investigations have revealed that the agent knew of the imminent impending danger though chose not to share the information.

Sources said that the vessel’s owners X-Press Feeders, the largest feeder operator in the world, couldn’t have been unaware of the crisis even though they didn’t intervene.

Sri Lanka Ports Authority Chairman (SLPA) retired Gen. Daya Ratnayake told The Island that they hadn’t been aware that X-Press Pearl had been leaking nitric acid since May 11, nine days before the fire started in Sri Lankan waters.

International news agencies reported that ports in Qatar and India had declined to offload the leaking acid container onboard in Jebel Ali, Dubai.

Harbour Master Nirmal de Silva didn’t answer his hand phone therefore The Island couldn’t seek his explanation regarding the latest developments.

Navy spokesman Captain Indika De Silva told The Island that the Navy on June 5 facilitated the recovery of the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR), also known as maritime ‘black box’ personnel of the Director General, Merchant Shipping. Navy and shipping sources said that it would help investigators review procedures and instructions in the run-up to the disaster.

Director General of Merchant Shipping Ajith Seneviratne yesterday (9) told The Island that the VDR had been handed over to the CID for further investigations. Asked whether his outfit authorised the entry of X-Press Pearl to Sri Lankan waters, Seneviratne explained their responsibility in terms of the relevant parliament Act was to issue licenses to shipping agents, annually. DG Seneviratne said that his office didn’t handle day today doings in respect of ship movements in and out of Sri Lankan harbours.

In terms of the Shipping Agents’ Act, Sea Consortium Lanka had received its license from DG, Shipping.

In the wake of Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, chairing a meeting attended by relevant officials, including Attorney General Sanjaya Rajaratnam at the former’s ministry, to discuss the issue at hand, The Island requested for an update. Minister Sabry explained that everything couldn’t be discussed publicly. However, the current focus is on taking tangible measures to make a proper claim for damages.

Minister Sabry said: “Our endeavor is to focus attention on specific areas to prepare for legal action on claims. In this regard, five sub committees were appointed to look at five specific areas relating to possible claims and asked to collate evidence, preserve those, assess damages past present and future with expert support and present it to the Attorney General for his response.

Legal team will do the research and support the Attorney General together with his work.

Identifying and appointing an international team is also being discussed where we have no expertise at the level expected to compete with a club of ship owners who process the claims for and on behalf of its members.”

Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and three others, including its Executive Director Withanage Don Hemantha Ranjith Sisira Kumara, in a fundamental rights application filed in terms of Articles 17 and 126 of the Constitution, in respect of the X-Press Pearl affair, has named X-Press Feeders and its local agent Sea Consortium Lanka as 11th and 12th respondents. They were among 13 respondents, including the Attorney General.

The CEJ Executive Director, in response to The Island queries acknowledged that at the time the SC had been moved against what the petition called the worst marine ecological disaster caused by the sinking of X-Press Pearl, they weren’t aware of the local agent deleting e-mails received from the Captain of the ship.

 According to the petition, in addition to 325 metric tonnes of bunker oil, the vessel carried altogether 1,486 containers- 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid, caustic soda, sodium methylate, plastic, lead ingots, lubricant oil, quick lime and highly reactive and inflammable chemicals such as Sodium Methoxide, High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) “Lotrene”, Vinyl Acetate, Methanol, bright yellow sulphur, urea, cosmetics etc.

Petitioners stated that the Captain and the crew members of the MV X-Press Pearl knew of the nitric acid leak from about 11th May 2021, nine days before the blaze started and had deliberately failed to inform the Sri Lankan authorities of such risk.



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Collective Cabinet responsibility won’t be at country’s expense

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Udaya: We are ready to face consequences of revolting against backdoor Yugadanavi deal

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila says that in spite of being members of the Cabinet, he along with National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa and Democratic Left Front (DLF) leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara, have supported the petitions filed against the government entering into a framework agreement with US-based New Fortress Energy in respect of Yugadanavi Power Plant, etc., as they strongly felt that collective Cabinet responsibility should not be at the expense of national security.

Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader and Attorney-at-Law Gammanpila emphasised they had challenged the Cabinet over the controversial agreement following careful examination of what he called a politically charged situation.

The Colombo District MP said that they were ready to face the consequences of legal measures they had resorted to. Minister Gammanpila said so in response to The Island query whether they could continue as members of the Cabinet after having objected to an international agreement, finalised by the government.

Gammanpila said that they had never tried to hide their intentions and they felt embarrassed by the way some in the government manipulated the very process that was meant to ensure transparency and accountability.

Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, on behalf of the government, entered into an agreement with New Fortress Energy, a company listed in the NASDAQ, on July 7, 2021, two days after Cabinet decided on the matter.

Gammanpila said they had tried to settle the issue at the Cabinet level and at the government parliamentary group. “Finally, we were left with no alternative but to denounce the New

Fortress deal and then throw our weight behind those who moved the Supreme Court against it,” Minister Gammanpila said.
The SLPP repeatedly demanded that whatever the issue the constituents should settle it within the government parliamentary group and the Cabinet.
Minister Weerawansa told Parliament on 11 November that an Attorney-at-Law would represent the trio at the Supreme Court proceedings.
Responding to another query, Minister Gammanpila questioned the rationale behind bringing in a company that hadn’t been involved in the tender process in respect of a high profile project involving the West Coast Power Limited (WCPL). The minister said that the US firm had spurned the tender process as it received an assurance as regards the contract.

The US government pushed for the deal meant to secure 40 percent shares of the WCPL at a cost of USD 250 mn, Minister Gammanpila said.
The Cabinet memorandum as regards the sale of WCPL shares, in addition to the floating storage regasification unit, mooring system and the pipelines and the supply of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) is dated 06 Sept., 2021, months after Sri Lanka entered into FA with New Fortress Energy.

Asked whether the NFF, PHU and DLF would receive the support of other parties including the SLFP, Minister Gammanpila said that those who had pledged support for their cause remained committed and confident.

In addition to the NFF, PHU and DLF with a combined strength of eight MPs, the grouping against the New Fortress deal included the SLFP (14 members), CP (1 MP), Yuthukama (2 members) and Tiran Alles. Over two dozen elected and appointed members of the SLPP are against the New Fortress deal.

Of the smaller constituents in the government, the MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) has distanced itself from the campaign against the energy deal.
Minister Gammanpila said that in his current capacity as the energy minister he had been compelled to struggle against the energy project as it posed a threat to the country. Referring to the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa sacking ministers, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayaka and G.M. Premachandra in 1991, Minister Gammanpila said that the UNPers sought the Supreme Court intervention. The SC ruled that in case ministers had been deprived of an opportunity to discuss some matter at the cabinet, they could do so with the public, Gammanpila said, adding that they pursued a strategy based on that SC position.

Minister Gammanpila said that Sri Lanka couldn’t afford to create a foreign monopoly in the gas supply to the country. The situation would be far worse as the proposed monopoly would be American, Gammanpila said, noting that in spite of entering into a spate of other agreements with foreign partners under controversial circumstances, the incumbent government seemed to have perpetrated an unpardonable act.

Minister Gammanpila said that the US energy deal would deliver a knockout blow to Sri Lanka’s efforts to tap gas in the Mannar seas. The consequence of this arrangement would be far reaching and devastating as far as Sri Lanka was concerned, the minister said. If the New Fortress deal was carried pit. Sri Lanka wouldn’t be able to bring in other investors to extract gas from the Mannar basin, the minister said.

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State and private sector union members on sick leave demanding Rs 10,000 pay hike

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Protesting workers blocking the entrance to the Presidential Secretariat yesterday morning (pic by Nishan S. Priyantha)

Members of several state, semi-government and private sector trade unions took sick leave yesterday (08) as part of their trade union struggle to win a number of demands including a 10,000-rupee pay hike and the cancellation of the questionable New Fortresss deal.

Unions of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), the Ports Authority and Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) have pledged solidarity with the protesting workers.
The unions held demonstrations near the Parliament Roundabout and the Fort Railway Station.

They opposed the government decision to raise the retirement age to 65.
“There are over 25,000 postal workers and about 80% of them have joined the union action. This is the case in other sectors too,” President of Sri Lanka Postal Services Union Chinthaka Bandara said.

He demanded that the government increase their salaries through the budget 2022. “Otherwise, we will resort to sterner trade union action. The cost of living has gone through the roof and the Central Bank has admitted that inflation has risen sharply. Most companies in the private sector have reduced the salaries of employees and the allowances in the government sector too have been slashed. People will have to starve at this rate, “Bandara said. (RK)

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Contaminated fertiliser: Case to be taken up on May 09

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By Ifham Nizam and Chitra Weerarathne

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ)’s lawsuit to stop unloading here of allegedly contaminated organic fertiliser, CA WRIT 476/2 was taken up yesterday before Court of Appeal Justices Achala Wengappuli and Dhammika Ganepola.

Taking the facts into account the Court ordered that the case be recalled on May 9, 2021.

At a previous hearing the court questioned the Attorney General whether the Government was in a position to assure that they would not allow the controversial load of fertiliser to be unloaded. In response to that request Deputy Solicitor General Nirmalan Wigneswaran, who appeared on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture informed the Court yesterday that the vessel carrying the controversial fertilizer belonging to the Chinese company has left Sri Lankan maritime space.

Senior Counsel Ravindranath Dabare, Ms Nilmal Wickramasinghe (AAL) and Ms Thushini Jayasekara (AAL) appeared for the petitioners on the instructions of Ms. Samadhi Hansani Premasiri (AAL).

In the petition. CEJ argued that organic fertiliser from any country could not be imported into Sri Lanka, under any circumstance, according to the regulations of the Plant Protection Ordinance imposed in 1981 and Plant Protection Act No. 35 of 1999 as it prohibit the import of soil particles, living organisms, any virus, bacteria or fungus cultures into the country, given that organic manure/compost is made of decomposing animal and plant parts, which could consist of pathogens.
However, when the samples collected from this controversial shipment were tested Sri Lankan authorities found harmful organisms. As a result, National Plant Quarantine Service did not issue any import permit particularly for this bulk stock of so called “Organic Fertilizer”, the petitioner pointed out.

It also said that based on those facts the Director General of Agriculture had issued a letter dated 22.10.2021, addressing the Chairman, Sri Lanka Port Authority, requesting him to prevent the berth of the vessel carrying this stock of Fertilizer at the Colombo Port and not to discharge any of its organic fertilizer into the Sri Lankan territory claiming it carried a huge phytosanitary risk to Sri Lanka.

In addition to this Ceylon Fertilizer Company also obtained an enjoining order (on 22.10.2021) from the Commercial High Court of Colombo against Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co. Ltd; the supplier and the People’s Bank, preventing the latter from making any payment under the Letter of Credit opened in favour of Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co. Ltd which has entered into a contract with Ceylon Fertilizer Company.

However, in spite of all these Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co. Ltd officially informed The Director General of Agriculture that its consignment of fertilizer which was shipped from China on 29th September 2021 would reach Sri Lanka as scheduled.

The Center for Environmental Justice therefore had to file an urgent motion CA WRIT 476/21 on (25.10.2021) to prevent the stock of fertilizer from entering the country owing to political or public pressure.

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