Burnt-out container ship sinks in sea; Sri Lankan Navy bracing for possible oil spill

The Sri Lankan Navy on Wednesday said that it is getting ready to deal with a possible oil spill after the fire-stricken Singapore-flagged cargo ship laden with chemicals sank in the outer Colombo Harbour following an unsuccessful bid to tow the vessel to deeper seas.

Water submerged the MV X-Press Pearl’s rear end a day after firefighters from Sri Lanka and India climbed onto the vessel and extinguished a blaze that had been burning for 12 days.

The development has led to grave environmental concerns as the container ship still has several hundred tonnes of oil in its fuel tanks.

“We are actually getting ready for an oil spill that could happen in the next few days,” Captain Indika de Silva, the Navy spokesman said.

He said the salvors had got on board the ship at 4 am on Wednesday morning and the action to tow it to the outer area had begun by 9 am.

Experts were trying to tow the ship farther out to sea, some 9 nautical miles away from the Colombo port where it had been anchored since May 20, to prevent its sinking at the current position which would have caused severe pollution.

The order to tow the ship came from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa late Tuesday.

“It could be towed only for a few hundred meters when it hit the sea bed,” he said, adding that the ship’s stern had settled on the bottom while the bow was floating.

De Silva said he was not sure if the fire which engulfed the ship since 12 days ago had also spread to the bunker oil.

“We don’t know yet, but we are getting ready,” he said.

The Sri Lankan Navy, with assistance from the Indian Naval coast guard, doused the flames after a strenuous effort, officials said.

The resultant environment and marine ecological pollution is regarded as the worst the island had seen. The ship’s cargo, comprising chemicals and nitric acid, were termed hazardous to the marine ecology.

At least 8 containers had fallen in the sea when it was anchored and went up in flames some 9 nautical miles off the Colombo port.

The authorities imposed a fishing ban in the area while The Central Environmental Authority and the Marine Environment Protection Authority began their investigations to make assessments of the damages to stake a legal claim for compensation from the ship’s owners.

Statements would be recorded from one Indian and two Russian officials on duty on the vessel.

While the Indian official was the deputy chief engineer of the ship, the two Russians were the captain and chief engineer respectively. The authorities believe that the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak which the crew reportedly knew about nine days before the fire began.

A court ordered on Tuesday to impound the passports of all the three crew members pending investigations.

The cargo vessel, which was carrying a consignment of chemicals and raw materials for cosmetics from Hazira in Gujarat to Colombo Port, caught fire on May 20 outside the Port of Colombo, where it was anchored.

Apart from the 325 metric tonnes of fuel in its tanks, the vessel was loaded with 1,486 containers carrying about 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid.

Sri Lankan environmentalists have described it as one of the worst ecological disasters in the country’s history and have warned of a potential threat to marine life and the fishing industry.

Large quantities of plastic debris have already inundated beaches, and authorities now fear an even greater disaster if the 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of gas in the ship’s fuel tanks leak into the Indian Ocean.

The entire western coastal line has become swamped with the waste from the vessel’s fire – mostly plastic beads which are harmful to the marine ecology, experts have said.

The plastic pellets, or nurdles, are used to make other plastic products and are a big source of ocean plastic pollution. Due to their small size, the pellets can be mistaken for food to birds, fish and other marine wildlife.

The coastal area is known for fishing, and mangroves around the Negombo Lagoon — a major tourist attraction and sensitive ecological spot.

Minister of fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera has said all fishing vessels entering the sea from the west coast’s Negombo have been stopped.

India on May 25 dispatched ICG Vaibhav, ICG Dornier and Tug Water Lilly to help the Sri Lankan Navy extinguish the fire. India’s specialised pollution response vessel Samudra Prahari reached there on May 29. India had named the rescue efforts Operation Sagar Araksha 2.

All 25 crew members of the ship — of Indian, Chinese, Filipino and Russian nationality — were rescued on May 21.

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