Sri Lanka fights to avert environmental disaster after sinking chemical container ship – National


Sri Lankan authorities were trying to avert a potential environmental disaster on Thursday as a fire-damaged container ship carrying chemicals sank from the country’s main port.

The Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl began to sink on Wednesday, a day after authorities extinguished the fire that raged on the ship for 12 days. Efforts to tow the ship into deeper water away from Colombo port failed after the ship’s stern was submerged and came to rest on the seabed.

The ship’s operators, X-Press Feeders, said the fire destroyed most of the ship’s cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals. But there are fears that the remaining chemicals along with hundreds of tonnes of oil from the ship’s fuel tanks could leak into the sea if it sinks.

Such a disaster could devastate marine life and further pollute the island nation’s famous beaches. The disaster has already caused debris – including several tonnes of plastic pellets used to make plastic bags – to wash ashore.

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The government has already banned fishing on about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of coastline.

The ship’s operator said on Thursday that the stern of the ship was resting on the seabed about 21 meters (70 feet) below the surface and the bow of the ship “was slowly settling.” The company said rescue experts were staying with the vessel “to monitor the condition of the vessel and the oil pollution.”

The company said its experts were coordinating with the Sri Lankan Navy to deal with an oil spill or other pollution.

Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Indika de Silva said the Navy and Coast Guard were preparing for an oil spill with help from neighboring India. India sent three ships to help, including one specially equipped to deal with marine pollution.

Environmentalist Ajantha Perera said there was a potential for “a terrible environmental catastrophe” as dangerous goods, chemicals and oil could be released into the water and destroy marine ecological systems.

Charitha Pattiaratchi, professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia, said as many as 3 billion tiny plastic pellets had already been dumped into the sea and washed up on beaches. He said the granules, known as nurdles, “will persist in the marine environment forever because they are not biodegradable.”

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The MV X-Press Pearl, left, is pulled by a naval vessel at Kapungoda, where it is anchored off the port of Colombo on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. Rescue experts were attempting to rescue tow the fire. The hit container ship that had been loaded with chemicals in deep water as the ship began to sink on Wednesday off Sri Lanka’s main port, officials said. Water submerged the aft deck of the MV X-Press Pearl a day after firefighters extinguished a fire that had been burning for 12 days. (AP Photo / Eranga Jayawardena).

The fire broke out on May 20 when the ship was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometers) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter port.

The Navy believes the blaze was caused by the ship’s cargo of chemicals, which was loaded in the port of Hazira, India on May 15.

Sri Lankan police are investigating the blaze and a Colombo court on Tuesday banned the captain, engineer and assistant engineer from leaving the country. The government said it would take legal action against the owners of the ship to seek compensation.

Sri Lanka’s Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said “it would not be an easy task to calculate the damage to our environment”.

He told media on Wednesday evening that an investigation was underway to determine what was wrong and whether the shipping company was responsible.

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“If this disaster is due to negligence, those responsible should be punished,” he said.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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