By Tharushi Weerasinghe
The Government has allowed the ill-fated oil tanker that caught fire off the eastern coast last month to leave the country against the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) directives and the Attorney General’s advice.
“The ill-fated crude oil tanker, the MT New Diamond, is being towed away from Sri Lanka against MEPA directives and the Attorney General’s advice regarding the pending marine pollution claim, the AG’s Coordinating Officer Nishara Jayaratne said yesterday.
Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told the Sunday Times the vessel was allowed to be towed after an assurance that it would pay all dues to Sri Lanka. “The Singaporean salvage company was granted permission to begin towing on Friday night after last minute negotiations between stakeholders and the MEPA on Friday,” he said.
The ship owners were directed to pay the Attorney General’s claim of Rs. 442 Mn. On Thursday the MEPA insisted that it would grant approval to tow the vessel once the negotiation process for the financial compensation was complete. On Friday, MEPA Chairperson Dharshani Lahandapura communicated the MEPA position to the Director General of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) which comes under the Navy.
The letter noted that the MEPA and the Attorney General’s office were negotiating with the Owners P&I Club and their lawyers to secure a guarantee of payment for the environmental damage caused by the spill.
The Navy yesterday said towing of the ship had started.
“They have permitted the towing subject to the assurance of payment of compensation and expenses incurred by the government agencies,” Navy Spokesperson Indika de Silva said.
The towing operation is being carried out by a Singaporean salvage company and is being monitored by two vessels of the Sri Lankan Navy, Captain de Silva said.
The MRCC is the regulatory body for all maritime rescue operations, the Navy spokesperson said.
The MRCC had expressed concerns over the towing. One concern was the fact that the ship would take two months to be towed to its destination. This was worrying with the onset of the North-East Monsoon that is expected next month.
“We are putting it in danger by keeping it. That is why they were permitted to start towing because it takes a lot of time,” he said, adding that the expectation was that by the time the towing was completed.
Captain Indika noted that MEPA reserved the right to grant permission to tow only at the provision of proof of environmental damage.
Shymali Weerasekara, Principal Scientist of the Environmental Studies Division at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, said laboratory reports confirmed high oil and grease content in the water samples collected from the spill locations. Field surveys done by both NARA and MEPA have confirmed the existence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the water.
Dr. Prabath Jayasinghe, Principal Scientist of the Marine Biology Division at NARA, told the Sunday Times that his team observed abnormal turtle behaviour 40 km from the site. “Turtles usually come to the surface for air and dive back but these turtles couldn’t do it due to unusual lethargy,” he noted.
Whether this was a direct result of the spill is still being studied. The team that went out to collect water samples and observe oceanographic parameters also noted whales and dolphins, 10-15 kilometers from the spill, showed no signs of impact. Dr. Jayasinghe attributed this to the varying biology of the species. NARA’s preliminary findings were submitted to MEPA and an internal report from NARA will follow soon.
NARA plans to continue a string of water inspections in 13 designated locations and high risk coastal areas. The initial three months will have testing being done every fortnight after which monthly water sample checks will be conducted for the next three years.
As of yesterday, the ship was off Kirinda, 100 nautical miles away from the land.