Sri Lanka faces ecological disaster as burning container ship starts to sink

A chemical-laden container ship that has been on fire for almost two weeks has started to sink off the coast of Sri Lanka, sparking fears of a serious environmental disaster.

Efforts to move the feeder vessel MV X-Press Pearl into deeper water failed on Wednesday, prompting the Singaporean operator to shift its focus to mitigating environmental damage as the risk of a potential oil spill heightened.

The ship has already caused one of the worst marine environmental disasters in Sri Lanka’s history, with chemicals from incinerated containers entering surrounding waters and plastic pellets washing ashore on sandy beaches near Negombo.

X-Press Feeders, the operator, told the Financial Times that it had called in Itopf, an NGO that responds to oil and chemical spills, and Oil Spill Response, a British group specialising in managing oil spills, as the fallout from the vessel’s plight threatens to escalate.

Associated Press reported Sri Lanka Navy spokesperson Capt Indika de Silva saying the ship could cause severe pollution if it sank at its current location.

Sri Lankans salvage wreckage washed to shore from the burning Singaporean ship MV X-Press Pearl © AP

The ship had about 350 tonnes of bunker fuel onboard but it is still unclear how much was burnt off during the fire and whether a certain volume could be pumped out of its tanks.

“The ship’s aft portion is now touching bottom at a depth of 21 metres,” said X-Press Feeders in a statement, while the bow is likely to gradually sink down with smoke rising out of two cargo holds.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority has drawn up a plan in case there is an oil spill, according to Kanchana Wijesekera, the country’s fisheries minister. Physical barriers would be deployed to slow the spread and skimmer ships would be used to help disperse any oil slick.

The fire began on May 20 when the ship, which was carrying 1,486 containers, was anchored off Colombo waiting to enter the port.

Sri Lankan officials believe the conflagration was caused by chemicals the newly built vessel was carrying, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, which can be used to make fertilisers and explosives.

The Department of Fisheries has suspended vessels from entering from the Negombo Lagoon and halted fishing activity from Panadura and Negombo.

Sri Lanka’s navy and India’s coastguard have been supporting efforts to extinguish the fire and limit pollution resulting from the vessel sinking.

A 25-strong firefighting team and crew were evacuated from the ship after a second explosion last week. One of the crew later tested positive for Covid-19. A local court has imposed a ban preventing the ship’s captain, chief engineer and assistant engineer from leaving the country.

Chemical, plastics and oil spills “erode the resiliency of marine ecosystems” and threaten the livelihoods of those who depend on the ocean for food and their livelihoods, said John Mimikakis, oceans programme vice-president for Asia at the Environmental Defense Fund.

The disaster illustrated “a glaring global environmental justice issue that exists in the world today: developing countries have contributed relatively little to fossil fuels demand or climate change, yet they bear the heavy consequences of both,” he added.

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