Sri Lanka faces maritime disaster following ship fire: official


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Negombo (Sri Lanka) (AFP)

Sri Lanka faces its worst beach pollution crisis as tons of plastic waste from a burning container ship runs aground, a senior environment official said on Saturday.

Fishermen were banned from an 80-kilometer (50-mile) stretch of coast near the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, as an international firefighting operation entered a 10th day.

“There is smoke and intermittent flames seen from the ship,” Navy spokesman Captain Indika de Silva told AFP. “However, the vessel is stable and is still at anchor.”

Authorities are more concerned that millions of polyethylene pellets are washing up on beaches and threatening the shallow waters of the fish farm.

The affected seafront is known for its giant crabs and shrimps as well as for its tourist beaches.

“This is probably the worst pollution of beaches in our history,” said Dharshani Lahandapura, head of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment and Protection Authority (MEPA).

Thousands of military and security personnel in hazmat suits clean beaches of plastic waste and other debris from the ship, which caught fire on May 20.

The impact on the region’s mangroves, lagoons and marine life was being assessed.

The jobs of thousands of fishermen are at risk, officials say, and the MEPA has said a possible oil spill will only add to the 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.

Authorities believe the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak that the crew had known about since May 11. The 25 crew members were evacuated after an explosion on the ship.

Four Indian ships joined the Sri Lankan Navy in the battle to contain the fire. Two ships were equipped to deal with an oil spill, officials said.

Rescue operations are being carried out by the Dutch company SMIT, which sent specialized tugboats in the fight against the fire.

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

The New Diamond tanker 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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