by Camelia Nathaniel
The southern coast is facing the threat of an imminent environmental disaster, as a Greek merchant ship carrying a load of crude oil has sunk in the seas off Panadura.
The 155 metre long Thermopylae Sierra, registered to Thersarco shipping company in Greece, had been anchored one nautical mile off the coast of Panadura since 2007 following a court order. It has around 75 metric tons of heavy oil, 200 litres of chemicals and 24,000 metric tons of cargo (steel structures) in its hold.
Director-General of Merchant Shipping Ajith Seneviratne, the marshal appointed by the High Court, when contacted by Ceylon Today earlier in the day, said the Navy and the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) are taking measures to prevent the ship from sinking and avert a possible environmental disaster.
“The ship is sinking at the moment and the Marine Environmental Protection Authority and the Navy are trying to salvage it. There is a small quantity of oil onboard, around 20 to 25 tons. A salvage company, Master Divers, is also trying to prevent the ship from sinking. However, it is doubtful whether the ship can be prevented from sinking though,” he said.
Seneviratne also claimed the Navy had informed him that the oil was in a semi-solidified state and that even if the ship sinks, it would not pose a severe threat to the environment. “The oil has solidified due to mixing with sea water and it has formed into sludge. The Marine Environmental Protection Authority is currently attending to the matter,” he explained.
The Marine Environmental Protection Authority and the Navy, when contacted by Ceylon Today, vehemently denied having any involvement in the salvaging of the vessel.
When this was pointed out to Seneviratne, he later claimed he would be meeting the Attorney- General later in the day (Thursday), to explore avenues of obtaining the assistance of MEPA in dealing with the present situation.
Meanwhile, the Navy confirmed yesterday that the ship was sinking and it was too late to do anything to salvage it, but said it had no involvement in the matter. “Now that the ship is sinking there is nothing that we can do,” Navy spokesman, Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said, adding that Seneviratne, had been appointed by Court to handle matters pertaining to the vessel.
Rear Admiral, S. R. Samaratunga, General-Manager of the Marine Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA), also denied any involvement in salvage attempts as per the directions of the court. “Now that the ship is sinking there is nothing that we can do. MEPA has been continuously highlighting the possibility of the vessel sinking and warned of the impending environmental dangers as well,” he said.
However, he said if the oil onboard is in a semi-solidified state, it will not have a devastating impact on the marine environment. “We have not been onboard the vessel for a couple of months now, and cannot make a definitive comment on the state of the oil. However, we feel that there will not be a huge environmental hazard, as the oil will not spill out similar to that of liquid form. The oil might later come out in the form of tar balls. We cannot however make any predictions, until we inspect the vessel and the condition of the oil onboard,” he added.
Rear Admiral Samaratunga said MV Thermopylae Sierra has been anchored offshore around Panadura since 2007 due to a dispute between the owner of the vessel and the shipping agent and that the issue had in fact been brought before court last December, when they had noted that water was leaking into the ship.
He said MEPA had applied to court asking for authorized agents to remove the oil safely, in accordance with the Marine Pollution Prevention Act. “The fragile marine ecosystem, coastal beaches, the fishing community and those living near the beaches would all be adversely affected, if the ship sank and the oil on board leaked into the sea,” he explained, adding that there is a stay order by the Appeal Court that prevents MEPA from taking any action with regard to this particular vessel.
Threat to the marine life
“We are currently monitoring the situation. Our main concern is how to avert a possible threat to marine life and avoid an environmental disaster,” he said, reiterating that the threat to the marine environment was very clearly highlighted in court last December. They had tried to convince the court to sell the vessel or to remove it from its current location to a safe anchorage in Trincomalee.
The counsel appearing for MEPA on 23 December 2011, had told court that the condition of the vessel was deteriorating and had asked that immediate action be taken according to Section 24(2) of the Marine Pollution Prevention Act of 2008, in moving the vessel. “MEPA also requested the court to grant them permission to remove the oil onboard with the intention of minimizing the environmental damage in case the ship sinks,” Rear Admiral Samaratunga said, adding that MEPA officers who boarded the ship at that time had reported back that there was a serious risk the ship could sink.
“The observations made by MEPA was then presented to court, stating that the substances on board the vessel could post a serious threat to the marine environment within the waters of Sri Lanka, the tourism industry and the fishing industry, especially in the western coast. Therefore, we told court that the best option would be to remove the vessel from its present location,” he said.
The court had in April this year, asked the Marshal of the High Court to auction the vessel. “However, since the auctioning was bound to take time, and due to the pending monsoons, we approached the Minister of Environment. He told us to take the vessel to Trincomalee for safe anchorage,” he said, explaining that the action would not have hampered the task of the court appointed Marshal in auctioning the vessel.
Rear Admiral Samaratunga said they had obtained the services of Master Divers to tow the vessel to Trincomalee. “After we had brought the tug, the towing master wanted to go onboard the vessel to inspect how the towing needs to be done. The tug master wanted the permission of the court marshal to board the vessel,” he said.
However, Samaratunga said that since there was a stay order for MEPA to keep away from all action in respect of the vessel, no action could be taken in this regard “That order is still valid and even if the ship sinks we are helpless,” said, pointing out that as per the court order given to MEPA, they are not able to do anything.
Earlier, the second officer of the ship who did not want to be named, told Ceylon Today, there is no one onboard the vessel at present, as the remaining three crew members had decamped, since the owner had not paid their wages, or even provided them with food and water.
The departure of the crew has heightened the vulnerability of the vessel. “The engine room is taking in water, and if left unattended, the ship could sink in a matter of four to five days,” he said, explaining that the vessel has been subject to a court case since 2007, due to a dispute between the Greek owner and the shipping agent.
He said the employees had not been paid and the amount due in salaries is around Rs 120 million.
Earlier this year, on the recommendations of the shipping agent, a court order was issued to auction the vessel. “However, the owner of the ship had appealed against this decision, and told court through his lawyers that he would tow the ship,” the officer said, alleging that the owner was only buying time, as it had been several months since and no action had been initiated by the owner of the vessel.
He said the owner did not have the funds to pay the employees’ salaries and provide them with food and other requirements, and accused him of hoodwinking the court, by saying he would tow the ship away.
“It’s been around five years since the vessel was anchored at this spot, and even according to the rules of this country it is wrong to allow a vessel to remain in the water without proper maintenance,” the officer said, explaining that the three crew members had abandoned the ship on 16 August 2012.
He said the crew had been asking the owners to provide them food and water while onboard the vessel, and that as no attempt was made by the owner to provide them with the basics, they had abandoned the ship.
The second officer also said that initially there was about 300 metric tons of oil onboard the vessel. However, after the removal of oil, there had been around 75 to 100 metric tons remaining when the ship went under water courtesy: Ceylon Today