The crew of the Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl had been aware of the nitric acid leak at least three weeks before the disaster, but they had been denied permission by authorities in both Qatar and India to unload the leaking container before the fire broke out, Shmuel Yoskovitz CEO of X-Press Feeders’, the vessel operator said on Thursday in an interview with Channel News Asia.
Providing a timeline of events, Yoskovitz said the container had first been loaded on the ship on May 10 at the Jebel Ali port in Dubai.
“It was discovered leaking while alongside Hamad, which is a port in Qatar. When it was detected, we asked to discharge it. The port authorities did not allow it since they had no manpower or the equipment readily available to discharge,” he said.
Yoskovitz said that afterwards the vessel sailed into Hazira, a port in India, where they requested the port to allow them to discharge the container.
“Again, it was rejected, more or less for the same reasons as it was in Hamad,” he said.
The X-Press Pearl then arrived in Sri Lankan waters on May 19. Smoke was detected the next morning.
“Until that time, there was only leakage from one container, which was handled and controlled by the crew,” Yoskovitz said.
When a Channel News Asia anchor asked if the incident could have been avoided if the leaking container was allowed to be discharged at the ports in Qatar and India, Yoskovitz replied that “it is very hard to assess what caused the fire”.
While the leak from one container was “the most probable cause”, he stressed that the company is “not 100 per cent sure”.
“There are many incidents like that at sea. Sometimes, terminals and ports are able to help, and sometimes not,” the chief executive added.
He said that the ship’s crew attended to the leak in accordance with guidelines from the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Convention.
Yoskovitz was then asked how inadequate packaging of chemical contents could cause such fires, and if this is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed.
He said that shipping companies have been trying to raise awareness about this issue for the past few years and there have been “countless incidents of fires”.
“Not to talk about leaks which happened probably on a weekly (basis) which we don’t hear, thank god, because a catastrophe has not happened,” said the chief executive officer.
“You need to remember that we load containers that are signed and sealed and we don’t open them. We are dependent on the declaration and the professionality of our shippers that they will pack the containers correctly and that they will declare them correctly,” he added.