Sri Lanka faces maritime disaster as waves of plastic from burning ship wash aground, South Asia


Sri Lanka faces an unprecedented pollution crisis as waves of plastic waste from a burning container ship hit the coast and threaten to devastate the local environment, a senior environmental official warned on Saturday .

Thousands of navy personnel using power shovels picked up tons of tiny plastic pellets on beaches from the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, which had been smoldering on the horizon for ten days.

The Sri Lanka Marine Protection Authority (MEPA) said microplastic pollution could cause years of ecological damage to the Indian Ocean island.

Read also | Colombo ship fire: hull intact, fire significantly reduced and no oil spill, ICG says

“It is probably the worst pollution of beaches in our history,” said MEPA president Dharshani Lahandapura.

The tiny polyethylene pellets threaten tourist beaches and fish farming in shallow water.

Fishing has been banned along an 80-kilometer (50-mile) coastline near the vessel, which has been burning for 10 days despite an international firefighting operation.

“There is smoke and intermittent flames seen from the ship,” Navy spokesman Captain Indika de Silva told AFP.

Read also | Colombo ship fire appears under control, no oil spill, Indian Coast Guard says

Orange-colored plastic booms were installed in case oil leaks from the paralyzed ship reached Negombo Lagoon, famous for its crabs and giant shrimp.

Thousands of small boats were stranded in Negombo on Saturday due to the fishing ban.

‘No end in sight’

Naval Coast Manjula Dulanjala said her team nearly cleared the beach on Friday evening, but were shocked to find it covered the next morning.

“It’s like the coronavirus. No end in sight. We removed all the plastic yesterday, only to see more tossed by the waves overnight,” he said.

Pellets and waste were packed in green and white polythene bags and taken away by trucks.

An officer leading another team said that in parts of the beach, microplastics and charred debris were two feet deep.

Local fisherman Peter Fernando, 68, said he had never seen such destruction.

The Asian tsunami of December 2004 devastated much of the island’s coastline and killed around 31,000 people, but only damaged coastal infrastructure.

Roman Catholic priest Sujeewa Athukorale said most of his parishioners were fishermen who were in danger of becoming destitute.

“Their immediate need is to be able to return to the sea,” he said.

“There are 4,500 fishing families in my parish alone.”

Threatened mangroves

Fisherman Lakshan Fernando, 30, said people fear plastic waste could destroy mangroves as well as corals where fish spawn in shallow water.

“No one is able to say how long we will have the harmful effects of this pollution,” Fernando told AFP.

“It could take a few years or a few decades, but in the meantime, what about our livelihoods?”

An oil spill from the ship, which would carry 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of diesel, would increase the risk of devastation.

Much of the ship’s cargo, including 25 tons of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, lubricants and other chemicals, appear to have been destroyed in the blaze, officials said.

The X-Press Pearl caught fire while waiting to enter Colombo harbor and remains anchored just outside the harbor.

An international rescue operation is carried out by the Dutch company SMIT, which sent specialized tugboats in the fight against the fire. India sent coast guard ships to help the Sri Lankan navy.

SMIT was also involved in spraying a burning oil tanker off the east coast of Sri Lanka last September after an engine room explosion killed a crew member.

The New Diamond fire took over a week to extinguish and left an oil spill 40 kilometers (25 miles) long. Sri Lanka has asked homeowners to pay $ 17 million for the cleanup.

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