Sri Lanka faces environmental catastrophe as the sinking of the burning container ship begins

A container ship laden with chemicals that caught fire nearly two weeks ago has begun to sink off the coast of Sri Lanka, raising fears of a serious environmental disaster.

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

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

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

The Associated Press reported that Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Captain Indika De Silva said the ship could cause severe pollution if it sank at its current location.

Sri Lankan rescue wreck washed ashore from the burning Singaporean vessel MV X-Press Pearl © AP

On board the ship was about 350 tons of bunker fuel, but it is still unclear how much was burned during the fire and whether a certain amount could be pumped from its tanks.

“The stern of the ship is now touching the bottom at 21 metres,” X-Press Feeders said in a statement, while the bow was likely to gradually sink as smoke rose from two of the cargo hold.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority has put in place a plan in the event of an oil spill, according to Kanchana Wijesekera, the country’s Minister of Fisheries. Physical barriers will be deployed to slow the spread and skimmer ships will be used to help disperse any oil slick.

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

Sri Lankan officials believe the fire was caused by chemicals the newly built ship was carrying, including 25 tons of nitric acid, which can be used to make fertilizer and explosives.

The Ministry of Fisheries has suspended entry of vessels from Lake Negombo and fishing activity from Panadura and Negombo.

The Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coast Guard are supporting efforts to put out the fire and reduce pollution from the sinking of the ship.

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

Chemical, plastic and oil spills “undermine the resilience of marine ecosystems” and threaten the livelihoods and livelihoods of those who depend on the ocean for food and their livelihoods, said John Mimikakis, Vice President of the Oceans Program for Asia at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“A shining global environmental sanitation issue exists in the world today: developing countries have contributed relatively little to fossil fuel demand or climate change, yet they bear the dire consequences for both,” the disaster explained.

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