Sri Lanka Faces An Environmental Disaster As A Ship Full Of Chemicals Starts Sinking

Jun 2, 2021
Originally published on June 2, 2021 4:05 pm

A cargo ship carrying chemicals and plastic pellets has been burning off the coast of Sri Lanka for nearly two weeks. Now, efforts to tow the ship to deeper waters have failed – and the boat's sinking looks increasingly likely.

The ship, the X-Press Pearl, was carrying 1,486 containers. Eighty-one of those were dangerous goods containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid. At least one container has leaked nitric acid.

Infrared footage over the weekend showed that the fire has mostly died out.

X-Press Feeders, the cargo ship company, said Wednesday that it "regret[s] to report that despite salvors successfully boarding the vessel and attaching a tow wire, efforts to move the ship to deeper waters have failed." The ship's stern is now touching bottom, the company said.

Members of the Sri Lankan navy remove debris washed ashore from the X-Press Pearl, which has been burning offshore of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, for nearly two weeks.
Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP via Getty Images

The oil fueling the ship is another serious cause for concern. The vessel was carrying nearly 350 tons of fuel oil, and salvage teams have prepared for the event of an oil spill.

Kanchana Wijesekera, Sri Lanka's minister of fisheries, said Wednesday that if there is a spill, booms and skimmers will be used around the vessel and at strategic locations, and spray will be used to disperse the oil slick.

Sri Lanka has temporarily banned fishing along a 50-mile stretch of its coast, where nitric acid has leaked into the water, and plastic pellets have washed up ashore.

It's not clear how the fire started. But Darshani Lahandapura, chair of Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority, told the environmental news site Mongabay that "we believe it was due to a chemical reaction due to leakage of nitric acid."

X-Press Feeders said there will be a full investigation into the cause of the fire and its spread once the fire is out. All 25 members of the crew were evacuated last week.

The ship left from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and was en route to Malaysia, and had stopped in Qatar and India.

Sri Lanka's air force captured dramatic aerial video of the burning ship.

The Associated Press reported that Sri Lankan police are investigating the fire, and a court in Colombo has banned the ship's captain, the engineer and the assistant engineer from leaving the country. The government said it will take legal action against the owners of the ship, according to the wire service.

Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia, said the incident will have "extreme environmental impact."

A dead fish lies on Sarakkuwa beach north of Colombo amid piles of plastic pellets on Wednesday.
Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP via Getty Images

Pattiaratchi said that among the ship's dangerous goods were 78 metric tons of plastic called nurdles — the raw material used to make virtually all kinds of plastic products.

Endless piles of the plastic pellets can already be seen on shore.

"These have been released to ocean and are found on beaches to the south of Colombo — as time goes they will keep moving southwards as our model predictions show. They will also go into river systems such as Kelani, lagoons (Negombo) and also into Port city. They are transported by the wind and currents — will remain at the surface until beached and will persist in the marine environment for ever as they are not biodegradable," Pattiaratchi wrote on his Facebook page.

The incident is also a crisis for area fishermen.

Sri Lankans salvage wreckage washed from the burning Singaporean ship X-Press Pearl last week.
Eranga Jayawardena / AP

"The ship has dealt a death blow to our lives," Joshua Anthony, head of a region fishing union, told Reuters. "We can't go into the sea which means we can't make a living."

NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer contributed to this report from Mumbai, India.

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