X-Press Pearl: Sri Lanka braces for environmental disaster from sunken ship

Sri Lankan authorities are preparing for an oil spill from a sunken container ship after efforts to tow the vessel into deeper waters failed.

The Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl had been on fire for two weeks near the port of Colombo. Part of the hull has now settled on the seabed.

Experts fear hundreds of tonnes of oil in the ship’s tanks could devastate nearby marine life and beaches.

Oil dispersants, booms and skimmers are being readied, they say.

The X-Press Pearl had been carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid, along with other chemicals and cosmetics, when it caught fire on 20 May. Many of the ship’s 1,486 containers tumbled into the sea before the huge blaze was put out earlier this week.

Pollution from the ship – including millions of plastic pellets which are the raw material for shopping bags – has already coated stretches of Sri Lanka’s western coastline.

Worst-hit areas include some of the country’s most pristine beaches close to the city of Negombo. Experts say the pellets still in the sea could travel as far as India, Indonesia and Somalia.

Salvage experts had tried to tow the burned-out wreck further away from the coastline. But on Thursday, the ship’s Singapore-based operator, X-Press Feeders, said the rear section of the vessel was sitting on the seabed at a depth of about 21m (69 ft) and the forward section was “settling down slowly”.

Navy boats and aircraft have been monitoring the wreck for any sign of an oil spill although bad weather is hampering the operation.

“There is no oil leak from the ship yet, but arrangements are in place to deal with a possible spill which is the worst-case scenario,” navy spokesman Indika de Silva told AFP news agency.

“Even if the bow also hits the sea bed, there will be a section of the upper deck and bridge sticking out of the water.”

Sri Lanka Ports Authority Harbour Master Nirmal Silva said salvage teams were still hoping to board the wreck to assess whether it could be refloated and moved into deeper water. But rough seas, rain and strong winds were hampering the operation, he added.

“Looking at the way the ship burnt, expert opinion is that bunker oil may have burnt out, but we are preparing for the worst-case scenario,” Capt Silva said.

The X-Press Pearl contains 278 tonnes of bunker fuel oil and 50 tonnes of gas oil. There are also about 20 containers full of lubricating oil.

The Marine Environment Protection Authority said it was preparing to deal with any oil spill. An Indian coastguard vessel in the area also has equipment that could help stop oil reaching the coastline, the Sri Lankan navy said.

One environmental group said the ship’s toxic cargo, which included acids and lead ingots, threatened to create “a chemical soup” in the area.

“The damage to the marine ecosystem is incalculable,” said Hemantha Withanage, executive director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice.

Local fisherman have been told to stay ashore because of the pollution, and many say they now face destitution.

“The ban is affecting 4,300 families in my village,” Denzil Fernando, a regional fishing union chief, told AFP.

“Most people live on one meal a day. How long can we go on like this? Either the government must allow us to fish or give us compensation.”

Sri Lanka has launched a criminal investigation into the disaster and the government says it will seek compensation.

“We will never give up on that effort,” ports minister Rohitha Abeygunewardene told a news conference. “We will calculate the cost from the beginning of this incident and claim compensation.”

Authorities in Singapore have also launched their own inquiry.

Sri Lankan officials believe the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak which the crew had been aware of since 11 May. The highly corrosive acid is widely used in the manufacture of fertilisers and explosives.

The ship’s owners confirmed the crew had been aware of the leak, but said they were denied permission by both Qatar and India to dock the ship there.

There is growing anger in Sri Lanka that the ship was allowed to enter the country’s waters after being rejected by two other nations.

A court order is currently preventing the captain, chief engineer and the additional engineer from leaving the country.

The 186m-long (610ft) X-Press Pearl left the Indian port of Hazira heading for Colombo on 15 May. The fire broke out when it was anchored off Colombo port.

The ship’s 25 crew were evacuated last week. Two suffered minor injuries.

 

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-57343139

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