PHOTOS: Mysterious fire sinks toxic cargo ship, risking marine life in Sri Lanka


KOLKATA, India – Dead turtles, birds, fish and a dolphin washed up on the shores of Sri Lankan capital Colombo days after recording in Singapore MV X-Press Pearl loaded with dangerous cargo sank off the coast after a fire.

The ship, which sailed from Qatar to the United Arab Emirates, was on its way to Singapore. It was anchored off the port city of Negombo, about 9.5 nautical miles (11 miles) northwest of the capital Colombo, when it first caught fire on May 21. detected a day earlier.

“The vessel was carrying chemicals in the dangerous goods category,” said Captain Indika de Silva, spokesperson for Sri Lanka Navy, Zenger News said.

“It included nitric acid, methanol, sodium methoxide, cosmetics, methane, caustic soda, and so on. It was carrying 350 tonnes of oil in its tanks.

An explosion was reported on May 22, but the crew were still on board. As the flames spread quickly after an explosion, most of the crew left the ship to make way for the firefighters.

After another explosion on May 25, the last member of the crew was evacuated with firefighters.

Burning containers full of chemicals fell into the sea from the ship’s deck, dumping debris into the ocean and polluting the island nation’s beaches, as emergency crews battled to contain the blaze in the middle rough seas and monsoon winds.

The ship, manufactured just this year and carrying more than 1,400 containers, burned for nearly two weeks before finally being extinguished on June 1.

According to Silva, they have yet to identify the cause of the fire.

The incident resulted in the dumping of tons of microplastic pellets into the Indian Ocean and the gradual flooding of Sri Lanka’s coastline, creating one of the most significant marine environmental havoc in decades.

There are concerns that oil could leak into the sea at any time and hamper nearby marine life.

“No oil spill has been observed so far, but the necessary forces mobilized are ready to deal with an oil spill, given the uncertainty of the weather conditions as the fuel is still trapped inside. tanks, ”said Silva.

International maritime and environmental experts say the plastic granules, known as nurdles, contain polyethylene, which is less dense than seawater and will initially float.

But, they warned that over time, exposure to the marine environment can alter their density enough for them to sink.

The vessel was carrying chemicals in the dangerous goods category. (@ slpauthority / Twitter)

“This makes the nurdles easy to skim from the surface and causes them to aggregate large masses visible on beaches and elsewhere along the coast”, Asha de Vos, a Sri Lankan marine biologist, told Zenger News.

“Plastics the size of nurdles, if eaten by fish, are likely to pass completely through the gut and be excreted. However, this does mean that any fish or shellfish eaten whole (including its digestive tract) could contain nurdles. “

Vos said the list of species known to ingest plastic pellets numbered in the hundreds, although the effects on animals are difficult to quantify.

Indian Coast Guard ships fighting intense fire in the midst of rough seas. (@ IndiaCoastGuard / Twitter)

“At the moment, there is no direct link between nurdles and the impact on animals, or nurdles crossing the food chain. Although microplastics are present in many species, their impacts are complex, with full ecological impacts poorly understood, ”Vos said.

She thinks it’s hard to say whether nurdles will have an impact on the coast or the ocean, as each habitat type will react differently to the presence of plastic.

“However, more sensitive parts of the coastline, such as mangroves or coral reefs, will require careful consideration and planning so that cleanup efforts do not cause more damage than the plastic itself.”

Salvors on MV X-Press Pearl after putting out the fire. (@ slpauthority / Twitter)

Sri Lanka’s fisheries ministry last week said emergency measures had been put in place to protect the Negombo lagoon and its surroundings. They had suspended all fishing for an 80-kilometer (50-mile) stretch near Colombo.

Environmentalists at Center for Environmental Justice took the Sri Lankan government and the operators of the container ship to the Supreme Court on June 4, alleging that local authorities should have prevented what they called the “worst maritime disaster” in Sri Lanka’s history.

According to the petitioners, the crew knew about the leak nine days before the fire notified Sri Lankan authorities.

There are concerns that the oil could leak into the sea and further hamper nearby marine life. (@ IndiainSL / Twitter)

Sri Lanka, in allowing the vessel to enter its waters, has been the subject of much criticism.

“Through this port, we get all the oil Sri Lanka needs, gas, chemicals, rubber and other materials related to other industries,” Prasantha Jayamanna, Vice President of Sri Lanka Ports Authority, noted.

“Likewise, because we are a major transshipment hub, various chemicals destined for many other countries in Asia pass through us. It’s reality. We have to accept this. We cannot ask shippers not to bring such cargo here. Any port that remains in this industry must handle such containers. “

Sri Lanka Ports Authority firefighting efforts and local agencies in coordination with the Indian Coast Guard to put out the MV X-Press Pearl fire continue for the eighth day. (@ slpauthority / Twitter)

On June 2, rescue experts attempted to take the ship to the depths of the ocean by towing it to minimize the risk of pollution near the coastline. But the rear part of the cargo collided with the seabed and the operation was abandoned.

“The stern of the ship has been under water since the fire was put out,” Silva told Zenger News. “The vessel was being towed by Posh Teal, a tugboat hired by rescuers. Gradually, the ship’s keel rested on the seabed and got stuck there, preventing any further towing.

Marine surveyors, with the help of the Sri Lankan Navy, recovered the voyage data recorder, commonly known as the “ship’s black box” on 6 June.

Rescuers remain on site to take care of any debris. The Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Coast Guard, which have oil spill response capabilities, are also on standby. (@ IndiaCoastGuard / Twitter)

Cargo Operators, X-Press Feeders, confirmed the situation at the scene was the same with no signs of debris and no reports of fuel oil pollution.

“The aft portion of the vessel rests on the seabed at a depth of approximately 21 meters (69 feet) and the forward portion continues to settle slowly,” the operators said.

“Rescuers remain on site to deal with any debris supported by the Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Coast Guard, which have oil spill response capabilities on hold.”

Millions of plastic pellets have covered swathes of Sri Lanka’s west coast. (Marine Environment Protection Authority-Sri Lanka / Facebook)

“Requests had been filed with the two ports [Hazira Port in India and Hamad Port in Qatar] to unload a leaking container of nitric acid, but the advice given was that there were no specialized facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the acid leak ”, the operator noted.

The officials filed a complaint against the ship’s captain as well as the engineer.

Both were interrogated for more than 14 hours and the court issued an order preventing them from leaving the country. “An investigation is ongoing and being carried out by the Sri Lanka Criminal Investigation Department,” Silva said.

Army troops moved to the Negombo-Porutota area to clean up the beaches affected by the fire aboard the MV X-Press Pearl container ship. (@ Sri_Lanka_Army / Twitter)

X-Press Feeders Managing Director Shmuel Yoskovitz has apologized to the Sri Lankan people for the damage the incident has caused to their livelihoods and the environment.

that of Sri Lanka Maritime Environment Protection Authority has been cleaning the coast for several days. Cleanups are underway at 14 sites, and the Air Force, Navy and Army are supporting the campaign.

Waste estimated at between 800 and 900 tonnes was collected in 43 20-foot containers and will be safely disposed of.

Waste estimated at between 800 and 900 tonnes was collected in 43 20-foot containers and will be safely disposed of. (Marine Environment Protection Authority-Sri Lanka / Facebook)

“The success of the clean-up operations will depend on how quickly the nurdles can be contained and collected,” Vos said.

“While it is unrealistic to remove every pellet from the environment, it will be much easier to clean up this relatively contained local spill than to try to clean up the plastics in the open ocean that are widely distributed. “

But environmentalists warn that plastic pellets in the sea could travel to India, Indonesia and Somalia. In addition, seagrass beds and nesting habitats will suffer significant damage. Dead marine life has already started to appear in Sri Lanka.

The Maritime Environment Protection Authority continues to clean up the coast of the Negombo Sarakku garden with the help of the Navy. (Marine Environment Protection Authority-Sri Lanka / Facebook)

Dead animals have been found on the beaches from Puttalam in the northwest to Mirissa in the south.

Officials with the country’s Wildlife Conservation Department said an investigation was underway to determine the cause of the deaths.

Although the losses suffered by the fishing community are unknown, petitioners from the Center for Environmental Justice have called for compensation for the fishing industry and tourism.

(Edited by Gaurab Dasgupta and Amrita Das. Map by Urvashi Makwana)

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