The Attorney General is due to file legal action in the High Court of Singapore this week seeking compensation over the 2021 X-Press Pearl disaster that caused enormous environmental harm to the seas and shores surrounding the country. This comes weeks after the Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe accused certain officials of obtaining an enormous bribe of $ 250 million to stall the case for compensation from the owners of the vessel.
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.
The filling of a claim for compensation for the enormous damage done to the environment and the resulting economic loss has now been delayed for nearly two years. There have been numerous inter agency tussles in this process with international law requiring that action be filed within two years of such an incident. This has raised the urgency of the matter with the potential loss of billions of dollars in compensation.
While even at this late stage the actions by the Attorney General to file suit in Singapore is welcomed. 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 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.
Further exacerbating the matter is the accusation by the Minister of Justice concerning a colossal bribe. Even though weeks have passed since his extraordinary accusation there has been no follow-up on this matter. Minister Rajapakshe claims 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 claims 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. Minister Rajapakshe now owes a duty to expose the details he had furnished to the IGP and substantiate his claim.
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.