The Sunday Leader

The Ship That Sank

By Indika Sri Aravinda

The ill-fated ship just before it sank off Angulana, Moratuwa

The Sunday Leader was the first to reveal that the ship anchored off Moratuwa, which has now sunk, was on the verge of sinking. Even though the government and  naval authorities have been saying that the ship was anchored off the seas of Panadura, The Sunday Leader can state with authority that the actual location of the ship is off the shores of Angulana, Moratuwa.
S. A. L. Munasinghe, an engineer who was working aboard the ship was the first to inform the public that the ship was at a precarious position. His phone call made on August 15, warning of the imminent sinking of the ship, was the last that was made from the ship. He says that two others have been forcibly kept on board the ship by the Navy, and that they had not been able to secure food supplies since July 25. Munasinghe says that the Navy had threatened them to stay on board, adding that the Navy should be held responsible if their lives were put at stake.
Munasinghe wanted the audio recording of the conversation with The Sunday Leadero distributed to all media houses in Sri Lanka to draw attention to the imminent environmental disaster, but the media houses refused to make the information public till the ship had actually sunk.
Munasinghe warned that there was a storage room filled with chemical substances aboard the ship. He added that the chemicals, which he calculated was in the range of 25-30 tons, would create mass-scale havoc if they leaked into the water.
On August 17, the navy boat anchored near the ship left the location as the seas turned rough as a result of strong winds and heavy rains. Seizing the opportunity, Munasinghe left the ship along with N. L. Gamlathge and Lahiru Prabath, who were also being kept aboard the ship by the Navy. Assisted by a fishing vessel, the trio made it to safety landing at Mount Lavinia beach.
Munasinghe then proceeded to inform his senior, the 2nd Engineer Muneen, and Marshall Ajith Seneviratne of the Directorate of Merchant Shipping, and lawyers who work on the shipping industry of the crisis that was looming. He also told them that unless the leaks of the ship were fixed before August 20, the ship would surely sink. Neither the Ministry of Ports and Highways, the Sri Lanka Navy or the Director of Merchant Shipping was able to prevent the disaster. The lack of action on the part of relevant authorities meant that nearly 275 tons of chemicals, oil, contaminated fuel and other waste was leaked to the western seas of Sri Lanka.

Ship’s arrival in Sri Lanka

The MV Thermopylea Sierra, owned by the Greek company Thesarco, was managed in Sri Lanka by Scarlet Shipping. The 145-metre vessel was manufactured in 1983. In 2007 when it was transporting goods from China to Egypt and five European ports, it was forced to anchor off the seas of Trincomalee following a mechanical failure. It was later brought to the Trincomalee harbor with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy.
The ship was loaded with around 25,000 tons of iron in the form of plates, pipes and coils, and another 2,500 tons of equipment which were being transported to a cement factory. This led to a legal battle between the cargo company and the shipping company, due to the delays in delivering the equipment.
The fact that the ship was operating under a Cyprian flag led the media to report that it was a Cyprian ship, even though it was registered as a Greek ship. Even though the shipping parties usually manage to find an amicable solution to issues such as this one, the intervention of the Director of Merchant Shipping, who operates under the Ministry of Ports and Highways, meant that further complications arose and the solution was further delayed.
The five companies which had cargo on board the ship had to file cases at the Colombo Commercial High Courts due to the intervention by the Sri Lankan government, and two leading law firms in Sri Lanka continued the legal battle at courts. The case also resulted in the ship to be brought to the seas near Colombo from Trincomalee.
The courts ordered the investigations to be done by the Director of Merchant Shipping. In October 2009, the Filipino staff who were working aboard the ship removed themselves from it due to non-payment of salaries. This led to the hiring of a Sri Lankan Captain and 14 other staff to maintain the ship, with the intervention of the Director of Merchant Shipping and the government’s certification.
The certification to purchase fuel, water and food for the ship was provided by the Director of Merchant Shipping. A total sum of US$ 60,000 was approved for the ship by the government, with the assurance that the private parties involved would pay back the sum once the disputes were settled.
The ship, which till 2009 was anchored near the Colombo harbor, was initially taken to the seas off Panadura to make space for the Victory Parade following the end of the war. The ship was then brought to Angulana during the first part of 2010 following instructions by Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne.
“There are tonnes of fuel in the ship, and I would lose my electorate if it leaks into the seas off Kalutara,” said Senrartne justifying his actions. He added that Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa had stated that the ship would be taken back to Trincomalee, and that Minister Yapa would take responsibility for any oil leaks.
In May 2011, the Captain and First Officer of the ship left their posts due to non-payment of salaries, and the crew of the ship later dropped to 8. The Directorate of Merchant Shipping then promised that the issue would be sorted over the next three months, and all salaries and allowances would be paid. The First Officer’s salary was calculated at the time as US$ 4,000.
The Colombo Commercial High Courts on April 25, 2012 gave its decision to move the cargo of the ship to a safe location, and to auction off the ship for its weight. The cargo of the ship was calculated to be worth US$ 450 million. The lawyers for the shipping company, however, managed to obtain a stay order preventing the ship from being auctioned off. At the time there were around 40 crew members which were provided by several shipping companies in Sri Lanka, and nine separate court cases were ongoing due to the owners of the ship not paying their salaries, which amounted to Rs. 280 million. Some of these cases were filed against the Directorate of Merchant Shipping. There was also a sum of Rs. 30 million which was due to Master Divers for fixing leakages of the ship.
A ship is usually expected to be docked once every three years for maintenance, but the last maintenance done for this vessel was carried out in 2005. Two previous scheduled maintenance had been skipped before the ship was anchored, and Master Divers had to repeatedly carry out repair work on the ship, which only lasted for about three weeks.
An inspection was carried out by the ship’s owners in January last year. Sri Lanka is however recorded in history as the only country to carry out a lengthy legal process for over five years, with a ship anchored in the middle of the sea. Shipping lawyers say that legal proceedings should have completed within six months, sticking to accepted legal norms.
Marshal Ajith Seneviratne of the Directorate of Merchant Shipping said that advice had been sought from the Attorney General about potential liabilities that could be sought in lieu of the damage that is caused from the ship’s sinking. He added that steps would be taken to pay the due salaries of the ship’s crew. He went on to say that there would be some level of environment impact from the ship’s sinking, and the Marine Environmental Protection Authority would be taking relevant steps to control the impact.
The chief engineer of the ship, K. A. Chandana, had informed President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January in a 7-page letter that there would be mass-scale environmental damage if the ship sank, and that would also severely affect the island’s tourism industry. The Presidential Secretarial in response said that the letter had been forwarded to the relevant sections, and that required action would be taken.
In addition, Western Provincial Environment Minister Udaya Gammanpila and the Marine Environmental Protection Authority were also informed of the issue, and both had responded stating that necessary action would be taken.
Despite the best of efforts by the staffers and other groups, the entire hierarchy of governance was not able to prevent the ship from sinking. Due to the ship’s location being in the middle of international shipping lanes, Sri Lanka would have to pay fines to the mapping authorities in London.
If any of the iron pipes are to float, the Sri Lankan government would also be liable to pay damages to any ships which would collide with any of them. The Sri Lankan government remains responsible for the crisis at hand.

1 Comment for “The Ship That Sank”

  1. Reality

    This a example how efficient the state sector in Sri Lanka is presently. Passing the buck down the line with nothing happening in the end. Talking of a land of lotus eaters. Hmm

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