“Worst Marine Ecological Disaster”: explosion of the X-Press Pearl in Sri Lanka

    05 Jun 2021

    A cargo ship carrying chemicals caught fire and began to sink off the coast of Sri Lanka. As a result, microplastics and toxic chemicals have entered the Indian Ocean and the country’s beaches, NDTV reports.

    The container ship MV X-Press Pearl, registered in Singapore, carried several hundred tons of oil, 25 tons of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and other toxic chemicals to Colombo, as well as a large batch of raw materials for the production of plastic bags. The vessel was located 18 kilometers northwest of Colombo and was waiting to enter the port when the fire started.

    The cargo vessel was carrying a consignment of chemicals and raw materials for cosmetics from Hazira in Gujarat to Colombo Port on May 20 when it caught fire some 9.5 nautical miles away from the port of Colombo.

    The firefighting effort on May 21 was assisted by the Indian coastal guard vessels and an aircraft, in addition to the Sri Lanka Navy and Air Force.

    After the first explosion, the crew of 25 was evacuated. On board were citizens of the Philippines, China, India and Russia. Then the explosions on the ship continued and an oil slick formed in the water. During the extinguishing process, a lot of water got on board, and when they tried to tow the ship away from the coast, it began to submerge.

    Fire and chemical spills have already wreaked havoc on Sri Lanka’s coastline, including the famous tourist beaches of Negombo and Kalutara. The beaches are now covered in microplastics, dead sea turtles, fish and birds.

    According to experts, it can take decades to restore an ecosystem known for its biodiversity. Thousands of military personnel in protective gear are involved in the clean-up operation. Local residents are not allowed to touch garbage, which can be very toxic, fishing is prohibited within a radius of 80 kilometers from the scene.

    Sri Lanka’s top environment body said on Saturday the country was facing its worst marine ecological disaster triggered after a Singapore-flagged cargo ship caught fire near the Colombo beach, fuelling severe environmental concerns.

    Apart from the 325 metric tonnes of fuel in its tanks, the vessel was loaded with 1,486 containers carrying about 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid.

    Darshani Lahandapura, Chairperson of the Marine Environment Pollution Authority (MEPA), said that according to the available information so far this would be the worst marine ecological disaster in the island nation.

    “With the available information so far, this can be described as the worst disaster,” she said.

    The plastic beads floating in the waters covering the affected coastal area are badly affecting the marine ecology in the respective areas, she said.

    Lahandapura said the fishing breeding points and mangroves around the Negombo Lagoon, a major tourist attraction, were very sensitive and the resultant pollution could affect them.

    She said an explosion was heard from the ship wreck last night.

    According to a statement issued by the ship’s owners in Singapore, “by 9.45 am Sri Lanka time today, the vessel’s hull remains structurally intact, as do the bunker tanks, and there has been no loss of oil into the port’s waters. The Sri Lankan Navy has also confirmed that there have been no oil sightings since the fire began”.

    The Sri Lanka Air Force dropped fire dousing material this morning. Authorities say the fire was under control and the possibility of ship’s sinking was less.

    The ministry of fisheries has assured that there was no reason to fear consuming fish as the fishing in the affected area had been banned from last Sunday.

    The fishermen affected by the fishing ban are to be provided livelihood support, the ministry said.

    The officials said a large number of dead sea turtles, birds and small fish could be seen along the coast.

    India on Tuesday dispatched ICG Vaibhav, ICG Dornier and Tug Water Lilly to help the Sri Lankan Navy extinguish the fire on the container ship.

    India’s specialised pollution response vessel Samudra Prahari will reach on Saturday to augment pollution control efforts, the Colombo Gazette reported on Friday.

    It may take decades to rebuild the region

    On Wednesday, the government suspended fishing on an 80-kilometer stretch of the island’s coastline, affecting 5,600 fishing boats, and sent hundreds of fishermen to clean up the affected beaches.

    Local TV channels show how dead fish, turtles and other marine life were thrown ashore. Mixing chemicals with seawater can cause serious damage to marine species, and plastic is deadly to them. It will also destroy coral reefs, lagoons and mangroves.

    Despite the fact that the authorities are actively trying to clean the beaches and the environment from plastic pollution and chemical waste, it may take decades to restore the region.

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