The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Maritime Transport:
Laissez-Faire Means Let-Pollute

Jun 7, 2021

The following is a translation from Lutte Ouvrière, the newspaper of the French revolutionary group of the same name.

The X-Press Pearl, a 610-foot-long container ship, has been on fire since May 20 a few miles off Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Part of the cargo burst into flames; another, a mixture of tens of tons of plastic balls and combustion waste, has polluted miles of coastline and an entire sea; the rest will sink with the ship. Sri Lanka is already announcing the worst pollution in its history.

The X-Press Pearl was a new vessel, outfitted by the world’s leading coastal shipping company, taking containers from giant ships to ferry them to smaller ports and shallower draft on the Indian Ocean circuit. Having spotted nitric acid leaks on a container, the crew requested the right of stopover in Qatar to unload the cargo. The authorities having refused, affirming that the port did not have the technical means, the ship therefore set sail with its acid leak.

The fire started on May 20, within sight of Colombo. The crew, with two injured, were able to be evacuated, but emergency services were unable to stop the fire or prevent pollution.

The ship contained at least 25 tons of nitric acid, a cargo of caustic soda, a cargo of 50 tons of marine fuel and 278 tons of heavy fuel oil in its bunkers, plus 28 containers of plastic pellets for packaging, and many more things, since it carried 1,486 containers.

The fire having broken out near a coast, the pollution is spectacular and documented. But this kind of fire is quite common—insurers count on average one every two months! More than half are due to the crew not really knowing what’s in the boxes—so exposed to the tropical sun, at the top of the pile, can be a container which SHOULD remain cool, at the bottom of the hold. And above all, once the fire has started, workers don’t know what to fight it with, because they don’t know what is burning.

As authorities sent the Pearl X-Press to disaster, an International Maritime Organization security meeting was drawing its conclusions. A proposal to better control containers in order to fight fires had been tabled. IMO took note of this and promised that it would be considered ... at some point. A proposal to require an emergency towing service will also be examined ... at some point.

Everything for profit! Too bad for the crews! Too bad for pollution! They will look at that later. Neither the stranding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal in March, nor the fire of the X-Press Pearl in May will have diverted the big shipowners and the public authorities from their policy.