A chemical-laden container ship that has been on fire for almost two weeks is sinking off the coast of Sri Lanka, sparking fears of an environmental disaster at one of the island’s most popular beach resorts.
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 catastrophes in Sri Lanka’s history. Chemicals from incinerated containers have entered surrounding waters and plastic pellets have washed ashore on sandy beaches near Negombo, which before the coronavirus pandemic was a busy tourist area.
The waters are also rich fishing grounds that support thousands of traditional fishermen.
Sri Lanka Navy personnel clear the beach from debris and other materials that washed ashore on the beach of Negombo near Colombo. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA
The disaster struck as Sri Lanka’s economy reels from the Covid-induced collapse of its tourism industry, which accounted for almost 13 per cent of gross domestic product before the pandemic.
The island closed to international tourists for 10 months last year and has struggled to revive the sector, putting intense pressure on Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves, which have fallen by about $4 billion.
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 ship’s plight worsened.
Associated Press reported Captain Indika de Silva, of Sri Lanka’s navy, saying that the ship could cause severe pollution if it sank at its current location.
The ship had about 350 tonnes of bunker fuel on board but it is still unclear how much was burnt during the fire and whether any 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 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 will be deployed to slow the spread and skimmer ships used to help disperse any oil slick.
The fire began on May 20th 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 fisheries department has suspended vessels from entering from the Negombo Lagoon and halted fishing activity from Panadura and Negombo.
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 those who depend on the ocean for their food and livelihoods, said John Mimikakis, oceans programme vice-president for Asia at the Environmental Defence Fund.
He said 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”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021