Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe informed last week that the insurance company handling the X-Press Pearl accident has agreed to provide approximately Rs. 291 million or $ 878,000 as an interim payment for the damage caused to Sri Lanka. The Minister said the insurance company has agreed to provide this compensation without affecting the case even though the case is pending in the Singapore court. He informed the media that this money will be paid as compensation to the fishing community affected by the incident.
A fire erupted in the Singapore-flagged ship and sank off the western coast of Sri Lanka in May 2021. The ship was allowed to enter Sri Lankan territorial waters while the fire had commenced on board and while it was carrying tons of hazardous material. The sinking of the vessels a few days later is now recorded as Sri Lanka’s worst maritime disaster. When disaster struck, the freighter was carrying 1,486 containers with 81 of them labelled as hazardous, transporting 25 metric tons of nitric acid, caustic soda and methanol. In addition, there were 9,700 tons of potentially toxic epoxy resins on board. The shipwreck also resulted in the world’s worst ever nurdle spill, as the vessel was carrying 87 containers laden with several types of plastic pellets estimated to weigh around 1,680 metric tons.
Arbitration is undergoing in Singapore between the Sri Lankan Government and the owners of the ship. Just before the filing by the AG, which was delayed for nearly two years, Justice Minister Rajapakshe made a startling accusation stating that he requested the Inspector General of Police to investigate a transfer of $ 250 million to an account in London belonging to an official involved in the case for compensation. The Minister claimed that this bribe was offered to stall the legal process against the owners and agents of the vessel. To date, the IGP has not informed of any actions taken in this regard. It is astounding that when the minister in charge of the subject of justice makes such a claim there is hardly any follow-up from the officials concerned.
However, many questions remain unanswered including as to why no legal action was initiated within our own country. Further there has hardly been any investigation into why this ill-fated ship, which was engulfed with flames, was allowed to enter Sri Lankan territorial waters in the first place. If the agents of the vessel did not disclose information about the hazardous material that was on board and the potential risk to the environment at the time of requesting entry, they surely must be held liable for such misinformation. Had the agents disclosed this information and a competent authority had allowed for the vessels to enter Sri Lankan waters, then such an official should be investigated for negligence at the very least.
While Minister Rajapakshe is talking of mere pittance in compensation, he is silent on his own claims that a quarter of a billion dollars had been offered as a bribe to officials under his purview to stall this case. The X-Press Pearl disaster is an ugly reminder of not only the environmental damage it caused but of the rot that has fermented within the State of Sri Lanka from corrupt officials and politicians who had allowed for this tragedy to happen, covered it up and financially benefited from the disaster with impunity.