Freighter sinks in Sri Lanka after weeks of fire, raising fears of environmental disaster


Fears of a major environmental disaster grew on Wednesday after a chemical-laden cargo ship began to sink after nearly two weeks in flames off the west coast of Sri Lanka.

The Singaporean-flagged X-Press Pearl once left the country’s coastline covered in tons of plastic pellets and now threatens to spill oil into its rich fishing waters as Sri Lanka grapples with one of its worst marine disasters.

The government banned fishing, a crucial economic industry, along about 50 miles of coastline following the incident. Authorities also deployed hundreds of soldiers to clean up affected beaches and warned residents not to touch the debris as it could be contaminated with harmful chemicals.

Sri Lanka is famous for its beautiful coastlines and has become an emerging tourist destination in recent years after its civil war ended in 2009. But its tourism sector has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Easter terrorist attacks. 2019.

Smoke rises from a fire aboard the MV X-Press Pearl as it sinks as it is towed on the high seas off the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka on Wednesday. Sri Lanka Airforce Media / Reuters

The fire had been burning since May 20. It was finally extinguished on Tuesday, but the ship then began to sink, according to the navy and government officials in the country.

Sri Lanka Fisheries Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said in a tweet wednesday that emergency preventive measures were taken to protect the lagoon and surrounding areas to contain damage from debris or oil leaks.

Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Captain Indika Silva told NBC News on Wednesday that an effort to tow the ship into deeper water was unsuccessful and had to be abandoned halfway, for the stern part of the ship had sunk and was resting. on the seabed while the bow remained afloat.

Silva said there was water inside the ship and their main concern was the possibility of an oil spill, although they had yet to observe any oil slicks.

“We are ready with all the necessary equipment to respond,” said Silva.

X-Press Feeders, which owns and operates the vessel, also confirmed in a statement that efforts to move the vessel to deeper water and away from the coast have failed.

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Images shared by the Sri Lankan Air Force on Wednesday showed that the burned and partially sunk wreckage of the ship was still smoldering.

The fire-ravaged ship was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, as well as other chemicals and cosmetics.

As the blaze was being put out, flaming containers loaded with chemicals either fell from the ship’s deck or opened on the deck, dumping their cargo into the sea.

“This is the worst environmental disaster for Sri Lanka,” Charitha Pattiaratchi, professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia, told NBC News by phone from Perth, Australia.

Pattiaratchi said he was very concerned about the possibility of an oil spill if the ship sank completely and its fuel leaked into the ocean “sooner or later”. The ship was carrying nearly 300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil at the time of the incident, the owner said.

There was also uncertainty as to the exact nature of the chemicals in the more than 1,400 containers on board, he added.

Another major concern is the plastic granules, used to make plastic bags, which have leaked from the ship into the ocean. Thick layers of them washed up along the country’s magnificent coast of golden sand beaches.

Members of the Sri Lankan Navy and Army were dispatched to pick up plastic pellets that washed up on some beaches. Photos and videos showed people wearing white protective suits, rubber gloves and goggles picking up bags of pellets in the sand and water.

Sri Lankan navy soldiers pick up debris that washed up on the burning vessel MV X-Press Pearl anchored on Monday off the port of Colombo in Kapungoda, near Colombo, Sri Lanka. Eranga Jayawardena / AP

The Marine Environment Protection Authority said Tuesday on his Facebook page that six cleanings were performed at 14 locations. X-Press Feeders said Wednesday it was working with local authorities on the shoreline cleanup.

Pattiaratchi said plastic pallets are a bane to oceans around the world, with around 230,000 tonnes entering the oceans each year, and the roughly 3 billion dumped off the Sri Lankan coast are likely to migrate to other parts of the ocean.

Modeling by Pattiaratchi and other researchers at the University of Western Australia suggests that the so-called ‘nurdles’, who traveled southwest after fleeing from the burning ship, will now migrate to the coast. west and further north along the island.

Pattiaratchi expects them to reach Indonesia and the Maldives in 40-50 days.

Notably difficult to clean, he said they would likely stay in the environment “for generations” to come.

Although they are not known to be toxic to humans, Pattiaratchi said, they can endanger marine life by getting caught in the gills of fish or ingested by sea turtles.

Local television channels in Sri Lanka have shown dead fish, turtles and other marine life that have washed up on the shore in recent days.

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