Sri Lanka’s burning cargo ship on track to become its ‘worst environmental disaster’
Posted on June 1st, 2021

By Helen Regan and Sophie Jeong, Courtesy CNN

(CNN)A huge cleanup operation was underway for a sixth day in Sri Lanka Tuesday after a container ship laden with chemicals caught fire 12 days ago, inundating the country’s western coastline with microplastic pollution and potentially hazardous waste.Sri Lankan environmentalists said it is 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.Members of the Sri Lanka Navy donned protective suits and rubber boots to remove the plastic pellets, chemical waste and debris that have blanketed beaches near the capital Colombo, including the popular tourist spot of Negombo.The Singaporean-registered ship, called the MS X-Press Pearl, was sailing from India’s Gujarat to Colombo when a fire broke out onboard on May 20, as it was nine nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast. Since then, the Sri Lanka Navy and Indian Coast Guard have been trying to put out the flames and stop the ship from breaking apart or sinking.If that happens, 350 metric tons of oil could leak into the ocean with the potential to cause widespread ecological damage to marine life and affect 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of coastline between the capital and Negombo, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera said last week.The ship was carrying 1,486 containers when the fire started, 81 of which held “dangerous goods,” including 25 metric tons of nitric acid, according to X-Press Feeders, the operators of the X-Press Pearl. The other chemicals onboard the ship are yet to be confirmed.

Sri Lanka Navy personnel remove waste washed ashore from the burning cargo vessel MV X-Press Pearl on the beaches of Wattala to Negombo in the suburbs of Colombo, on May 28.

Sri Lanka Navy personnel remove waste washed ashore from the burning cargo vessel MV X-Press Pearl on the beaches of Wattala to Negombo in the suburbs of Colombo, on May 28.On Monday, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority said the vessel’s hull remained structurally intact and “no oil or chemical spill (had been) observed till now.””Salvors are also exploring the possibility of boarding the ship and making a tow connection so it can be moved,” the port authority said in a statement.X-Press Feeders said on Monday there were “no visible flames aboard the vessel, though smoke is still issuing from areas in the ship’s aft,” according to the company’s Incident Information Center, referring to the area toward the rear of the vessel.”Firefighting tugs will continue spraying and misting operations to ensure the cooling of all hotspots and the vessel’s hull and hatches, with temperature readings being taken with specialized equipment that has arrived from the Netherlands,” it continued.The 25-member crew have been evacuated and most are in quarantine at local hotels. Two crew members sustained leg injuries following an explosion onboard on May 25 and were taken to hospital. One of the pair later tested positive for Covid-19 and was transferred to a special facility in a military hospital, according to X-Press Feeders.

An earthmover removes debris from the X-Press Pearl ship, on a beach at Pamunugama in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on May 28.

An earthmover removes debris from the X-Press Pearl ship, on a beach at Pamunugama in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on May 28.The company said it was “helping local police with their enquiries into the fire and are cooperating with investigators.””X-Press Feeders remain fully focused on the ongoing firefighting and salvage operation and will continue cooperating with the relevant investigations into this incident,” it said.Sri Lankan authorities have launched criminal and civil probes into how the fire started.X-Press Feeders said it was “too early to tell” but had previously reported one of the containers onboard was leaking nitric acid at its previous stops in Hamad Port in Qatar and Hazira Port in India. The company said “the advice given was there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking unit.”

Concerns for fishermen and marine life

The Sri Lankan Marine Environment and Protection Authority (MEPA) said in local media the plastic waste had caused “the worst environmental disaster we have seen in our life time.” MEPA added the damage from the ship was still being calculated.Muditha Katuwawala, coordinator of Sri Lankan environmental group Pearl Protectors, said the ocean surrounding the ship would be “quite toxic” and raised fears for the potential impact on marine life, including several local species of turtles and fish.

Members of the Sri Lanka Navy remove debris washed ashore from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl.

Members of the Sri Lanka Navy remove debris washed ashore from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl.One of the biggest concerns was the millions of plastic pellets that are polluting the waters and washed up on beaches along the coast after an estimated three containers fell into the sea, he said, raising concerns for fish and other wildlife likely to swallow the microparticles.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.Katuwawala said another concern is the monsoon rains and wind washing the pellets further along the coast.”Yesterday, and even today, we see how the movement of pellets are polluting all the western coast of Sri Lanka and along the southern coast. This is going to have a severe impact, socially and environmentally,” he said.Researchers were still trying to determine the impact on the environment and marine life, he added. But the fishing industry — of which many Sri Lankans living along the coast rely on for their livelihoods — has already been impacted due to coronavirus restrictions.Wijesekera, the fisheries minister, suspended fishing in the area around the stricken ship and said compensation would be provided to those whose jobs were affected by the disaster.Speaking to CNN last week, Wijesekera said: “We are trying our best to protect the coastline” but if the ship does sink, “we don’t have adequate resources to manage the entire spill.”Even if the ship does not sink, he said it could “take weeks to finish the cleanup.” 

CNN’s Angus Watson in Sydney contributed reporting.

5 Responses to “Sri Lanka’s burning cargo ship on track to become its ‘worst environmental disaster’”

  1. Noor Nizam Says:

    This does not happen as a result of a mistake. This only happens because of corruption. Take a look at the “worst marine environmental “disaster,” created by these officials and the catastrophe facing our people.
    How did the Port Authority staff who allowed this MV X-Press Pearl ship to get close to Colombo Habour allow the ship to come close to the port when they saw / noticed the “smoke” without taking proper action?
    They must take full responsibility for this great catastrophe. They are now trying to cover up the truth by deceiving the president. Could it be the act of politicians to help these government employees? Maybe with them the shipping agent is trying to cover it up or wipe it under the “carpet”. The government must take strong decisions in this matter to save the country. Those responsible must be made to pay for willfull actions that has caused this gigantic disaster to our Nation,Sea and beautiful shores.
    In this case Our President must save our country, “MAATHRUBOOMIYA” from such a catastrophe in the future due to the possibility of “CORRUPT” officials working hand in hand with multinational corporations for the benefit of a few million dollars for their personal gain. A powerfull team has to probe this disaster fully using our own expertise, free from political influence. If necessary, foreign experts can be brought in.
    Noor Nizam – Peace and Political Activist, Political Communications Researcher, SLFP/SLPP Stalwart, Convener “The Muslim Voice” and Member “Viyathmaga”.

  2. Nimal Says:

    What a tragedy for the humble people who are trying to make a living from the sea? These incidents in high seas close to our countries seem to be increasing when in the past we had hundreds of passenger and cargo ships docking or passing our ports and never heard of fires like this on ships. I really smell a rat.

  3. Nimal Says:

    Just imagine our balu culture where we put the captain and the crew in a hotel in Wellawatta while in Indonesia when a similar incident happened close to Singapore they locked up their own captain and the crew because their relations with Singapore matters for their country’s economy and other benefits. Singapore has a very formal and erect culture, unlike us and they demand justice and accountability from the crew of that passenger ship, the reason the crew are locked up. This tragedy happened a couple of days ago.
    We should not have allowed this ship close to the island but make them move hundreds of miles away from our shores, escorted by our navy with fire fighting facilities. They could ultimately dump in to the sea far away from us, causing less harm to the sea life and the livelihoods of our fisher folks.
    We should have a maritime salvage and rescue company from Europe stationed in a port in the island where for a fee could come to ease the situation like this. Thereby they could earn us some foreign exchange in servicing such tragedies. I think Holland and Norway seem to be good at it and why not they have a branch here?.

  4. aloy Says:

    I feel very sad for the plight of our fisher folk whose livelihood depend on the fish in shallow waters. I remember the days we lived only a couple of miles away from sea, I and my late brother would go to the ‘wella’ and sometimes take part in drawing the ‘maa del’. At the end they would even give our share. They are nice and good hearted people. Now they would suffer without their basic livelihood and god only knows for how long.

    BTW, those were the days we as little boys would roam all over the place including the thickets next to the village and eat all kinds of berries. Perhaps these would have given us natural immunity to withstand Corona. May be I too got a mild one in December 2019 but can withstand any virulent mutations coming again without ‘Sputnik’ etc.

  5. aloy Says:

    We commend the Prez for taking the right decision to tow away the Ship despite compensation conerns. I am sure there will be international help to obtain a fair amount for the citizens affected.

    One last request from the Prez, that we got together and appointed:

    From various protests that we can see all over the country, the GOSL has lost the trust of the people. As the head of state he should see the writing on the wall and make a decision to dissolve the cabinet and prorogue the parliament. He should appoint a committee of people of stature with proven honesty to run the country for about two years. They should be charge with the responsibility of bringing a new constitution. Actually, our 1948 one should be sufficient with minimal changes. The committee should not have any politico. People like Channa J, Sarath W, and one each from minorities can be advisors without executive powers. The team should not be more than 10. When investors see things moving well and gain confidence there will be enough of them to come.

    The properties that have been ear marked for sale can go ahead as well as the elevated roads that have been planned for construction, but under this team.

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