By:Staff WriterColombo (LNW): The Sri Lankan government is filing a lawsuit in Singapore for compensation nearly two years since the worst maritime disaster in the country’s history. But activists say it waited too long and would have stood a better chance of adequate compensation had the lawsuit been filed in Sri Lanka.
“The decision to lodge the lawsuit in Singapore courts was done in consultation with a group of independent local and international lawyers as Singapore’s legal system is better equipped to handle this type of complex maritime legal battles,” Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe said.
The sinking of the fire-gutted ship, carrying tons of plastic pellets and toxic chemicals, is considered Sri Lanka’s worst maritime disaster to date.
The plastic pellets, known as nurdles, fouled an extensive arc of Sri Lanka’s southwestern shore, with volunteer crews hard at work cleaning up the billions of grain-sized pellets for months on end.
A 40-member expert committee convened by the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) to assess the environmental damage issued its second interim report in January this year, in which it put a price on the disaster: US$6.4 billion.
Maritime rules require a claim for compensation to be filed within two years of the occurrence of the accident.
The Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl caught fire in Sri Lankan waters on May 20, 2021, and sank several days later. But the long wait without filing action has caused anxiety among activists, who have criticized the government for not moving fast enough.
Part of the delay was due to the complexity of the environmental assessment. There was very little baseline data for the expert committee to compare against, especially in the maritime context, which required them to assess damage scenarios over the short, mid- and long terms, said Dharshanie Lahandapura, former chair of the MEPA.
The group of experts continues to monitor the impacts of pollution caused by the disaster. The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) is also monitoring impacts to the marine environment, while the Department of Wildlife Conservation is assessing the fallout on marine life, Lahandapura told Mongabay.
Based on the future findings, there could be more claims, given that the nurdles and other chemicals are likely to have long-lasting effects, Lahandapura said.
But waiting until just weeks before the two-year deadline “is unacceptable as the strategy should be to file it first without waiting for the outcome of the expert committee evaluation,” said Ravindranath Dabare, a lawyer and chair of the Centre for Environmental Justice, a Colombo-based NGO.
“Within the first week of the X-Press Pearl disaster, CEJ filed the first case in local courts to push the authorities to take necessary actions, and subsequently two more cases to expedite the proceedings as the work was lagging,” Dabare said.