Sri Lankan environmentalists said it is one of the worst ecological disasters in the country’s history and warned of a potential threat to marine life and the fishing industry.
Members of the Sri Lankan Navy donated protective suits and rubber boots to remove plastic pellets, chemical waste and debris, including the popular tourist destination of Negombo which has beaches near the capital Colombo.
The Singapore-registered ship, called MS X-Press Pearl, was on its way to Colombo from Gujarat, India, when the ship caught fire on 20 May, as it was nine nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast. Since then, the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have been trying to extinguish the flames and prevent the ship from breaking or sinking.
If this happens, 350 metric tons of oil may leak into the sea, causing extensive ecological damage to marine life and affecting 30 kilometers (18.6 mi) of shoreline between the capital and Negombo, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Fisheries Last week by Kanchana Vijasera.
According to X-Press Feeders, the operator of X-Press Pearl, the ship had 1,486 containers at the time of the fire, 81 of which contained “hazardous goods”, including 25 metric tons of nitric acid. Other chemicals on the ship are yet to be confirmed.
“The salvers are also exploring the possibility of boarding the ship and making tow connections so that it can be moved,” the port authority said in a statement.
“There were no visible flames on the ship, although smoke is still emanating from the ship’s aft areas,” the X-Press feeders said Monday, referring to the area behind the ship, according to the company’s Incident Information Center is.
“Firefighting tugs will continue spraying and mist operations to cool all hotspots and the hull and hatch of the vessel, with temperature readings being taken with special equipment coming from the Netherlands,” it continued.
The 25-member crew has been evacuated and most of the local hotels are in quarantine. On May 25, two crew members suffered leg injuries and were rushed to the hospital following an explosion on the ship. According to X-Press feeders, one of the pair later tested positive for the Kovid-19 and was transferred to a special facility at a military hospital.
The company said it was “helping local police investigate the fire and cooperating with investigators.”
“The X-Press feeders are fully focused on the ongoing fire and rescue operations and will continue to cooperate in relevant investigations into the incident,” it said.
Sri Lankan authorities have started a criminal and civil investigation into how the fire broke out.
X-press feeders said it was “too early to say” but had previously been reported to have had a leak of nitric acid in a container onboard at its previous stop at Hamad Port in Qatar and Hazira Port in India. “It was advised that no specialist facilities or expertise were immediately available to deal with the leaking unit,” the company said.
Concerns of fishermen and marine life
The Sri Lankan Marine Environment and Conservation Authority (MEPA) said in local media that plastic waste had “seen the worst environmental disaster in our lifetimes.” MEPA said the loss from the ship was still being calculated.
Mudita Katuwawala, coordinator of the Sri Lankan environmental group Pearl Protectors, said the sea around the ship would be “quite toxic” and raises fears for potential impacts on marine life, including many local species of turtles and fish.
One of the biggest concerns was the millions of plastic shrapnel that are polluting the water and washed away on the beaches along the coast, after an estimated three containers fell into the sea, he said, of swallowing microparticles for fish and other wildlife. There is a possibility.
Plastic pellets, or nurdles, are used to make other plastic products and are a major source of ocean plastic pollution. Due to its small size, the pellets can be mistaken for the food of birds, fish and other marine wildlife.
Katuwala said another concern is the monsoon rains and the wind washing the pellets further along the coast.
He said, “Tomorrow and even today, we see how the movement of pellets is polluting the entire west coast and southern coast of Sri Lanka. It is going to have a socially and environmentally serious impact.”
He said researchers are still trying to find out the impact on the environment and marine life. But the fishing industry – of which many Sri Lankans living along the coast are dependent for their livelihoods – has already been affected due to coronovirus restrictions.
Fisheries Minister Wijesekera suspended fishing in the vicinity of the stricken ship, saying compensation would be given to those whose jobs were affected by the disaster.
Speaking to CNN last week, Wijecera said: “We’re doing our best to protect the beach” but if the ship sinks, “we don’t have enough resources to manage the entire spill.”
Even if the ship does not sink, he said it “may take weeks to finish the cleanup.”
Angus Watson of CNN in Sydney contributed to the reporting.