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Spill Journal: X-Press Pearl

Explore our role in X-Press Pearl's cleanup, collaborative strategies, and maritime disaster response implications in this Spill Journal.

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Spill Journal: X-Press Pearl

In May 2021, an incident 10km off the coast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, forced us to look beyond our traditional oil spill clean-up procedures. The X-Press Pearl, a containership loaded with nearly 1,500 containers, caught fire on its journey from the port of Hazira, India. What initially looked like a standard oil spill would lead to a different type of contamination in the ocean. 

Through this Spill Journal, we take a look at our involvement in the clean-up efforts, the collaborative strategies employed, and the broader implications for maritime disaster response.

Overview

The incident began when a fire broke out on the X-Press Pearl on its voyage across the Indian Ocean. The risk of an oil spill from the container ship was low from the start due to the fire, which burned for two weeks and reached temperatures of at least 1,500 degrees Celsius, consuming all the hydrocarbons on the ship.

To tackle this potential environmental disaster, we worked alongside the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), Vessel Owners and insurers, in-country government, environmental groups, and stakeholders to ensure the damage to local marine wildlife and the nearby shorelines was limited as we began the clean-up process.

Challenge

It soon became clear that the spill that was causing the most concern was not oil but plastic nurdles. Our primary objective was to address the plastic nurdles that had begun polluting the western shores of Sri Lanka. We had studied previous nurdle spill incidents in other countries but had yet to be directly involved in a spill of this kind. Our studies of previous incidents allowed insight into what to anticipate upon our arrival. Although nurdles differ from oil, we understand that they generally float, and their movement is dictated by ocean currents and wind patterns.

Equipped with this knowledge, we followed our standard safety protocols, similar to those used for oil spills. 

The initial phase of any response effort is typically the most demanding. During this stage, the team was focused on devising and implementing a response strategy. It became even more challenging due to the numerous stakeholders we were working with, who all had to reach a consensus on the strategy. It was a huge task; it can be challenging dealing with a substance as complex as oil that we have spent years researching and developing strategies for; a nurdle spill was something entirely new to our organisation.

The most significant hurdle for our team was crafting a response strategy that would be acceptable to the Sri Lankan authorities, ITOPF, the United Nations, CEDRE, and various foreign government representatives whom the Sri Lankan authorities had sought assistance from. Although our strategy was partially accepted, there was a request to incorporate a more mechanised approach for the nurdle removal. It's important to note that we did consider these methods, but our challenge stemmed from not having had the opportunity to test them. Overcoming this obstacle and gaining acceptance for our strategy was primarily due to our willingness to explore uncharted territory and adapt our existing knowledge to address this unique challenge.

Nurdles on Poruthota beach

Solution

Our Team Leader on this particular spill was Gabriel Gyamfi, his team tried various methods to tackle the issues presented during this spill and come up with an effective solution.

Part of the solution was to adapt our spill response techniques for this nurdle incident. We employed SCAT (Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique) surveys and ArcGIS tools to assess the extent and severity of nurdle contamination before mapping this on our ArcGIS platform. Additionally, we experimented with various shoreline methods, such as trench digging. 

While trenching was partially effective, we had to discontinue this method due to the extensive changes it caused to the shoreline profile. However, this approach inspired us to create water baths to separate nurdles from the sand, an innovative solution that also proved to be an enduring strategy throughout the response.

We were learning more about the material we were working with as time went on. We attempted other techniques like the use of vacuums, sieves, and trommels. We had to adapt to changes in the size of the nurdles by reducing the mesh sizes of the sieves and the trommels. Just as oil weathers over time, the nurdles were eroding in the surf and from the sand on the beach.

Trenches being dug on Sarakkuwa beach
Testing blower vacuum clean-up methods

Impact

Although this was the first nurdle spill that we had responded to, we were able to use our expertise and skills from our years of experience in responding to oil spills to assess how to deal with this effectively and reduce the impact on the environment.

Fortunately, most of the hydrocarbons onboard the vessel were consumed in the raging chemical fires on the ship. It appeared that there was no significant impact of oiling on the shoreline apart from a few tar balls that washed ashore. But had conditions been different offshore, we may have had a more significant impact of oil on the shorelines.

Our collaboration with ITOPF involved intricate planning and consideration to factor in the range of potentially diverse pollutants involved, not just the plastic nurdles but other hazardous chemicals.

In response to the X-Press Pearl incident, we have worked on developing a maritime disaster plan, strengthening institutional frameworks, and building capacity. The ongoing success of this plan is dependent on building a strong coalition between the Government of Sri Lanka and other international partners.

We have continued to build on our knowledge of plastics as a pollutant, and as a result, we formed the Plastic Pollution Working Group (PPWG) alongside Oracle Environmental, ITOPF, and IMO, as well as others to expand and improve our ability to respond to this kind of spill. The group works collaboratively to evolve a response plan to reduce the amount of plastic washing up on shorelines.

"My advice for members is to strive for a certain degree of self-sufficiency. While it would be difficult to be entirely self-sufficient in handling an incident of the scale of the X-Press Pearl incident, it's worth noting that, building relationships with governing authorities and other stakeholders would help in times of a spill. Being self-sufficient also means they can take some initial counter-pollution measures before external assistance arrives." Gabriel Gyamfi - First In-Country Lead, X-Press Pearl.

Lessons Learned

This was a particularly challenging incident for us to deal with; not only was it a new type of material to navigate, but it also took place during the COVID pandemic, which made it difficult to travel or transport response equipment.

Our response to the X-Press Pearl incident highlights the value of a long-term approach and the development of a maritime disaster plan. We have implemented a multi-year initiative that involved developing a disaster plan, strengthening institutional frameworks, and capacity building. The success of this initiative has depended on forging a strong coalition between the Government of Sri Lanka and other international partners.

One of the key takeaways from this particular incident is the importance of looking at ways to prevent incidents from occurring or escalating before they arrive at that point. Although we were able to deploy our team quite rapidly, it's important for organisations to understand that external support may not always arrive as promptly.

An effective response depends on competent personnel working to a well-developed plan that has been adequately resourced and regularly exercised. Our Preparedness Services ensure staff can be trained and plans properly developed, giving members access to the right equipment.