A stricken container ship that caught fire 13 days ago off the Sri Lankan coast, unleashing one of the worst ecological disasters in the country’s history, is now sinking, officials said.
Since May 20, the Sri Lanka Navy and Indian Coast Guard have been working round the clock to try to stop that from happening as the blaze engulfed the container ship, which was laden with chemicals such as nitric acid and carrying 350 metric tons of oil in its tanks.
Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) has warned the Singaporean-registered ship, called the MV X-Press Pearl, could create an oil spill emergency. It expects pristine beaches along a 30 kilometer-stretch of coastline from the tourist spot of Negombo to Dikowita to be hit.
The fire, which raged for almost two weeks, has prompted a large-scale clean-up operation along Sri Lanka’s western coast, as millions of plastic micro pellets blanketed beaches near the capital Colombo. Fishing in the area was suspended and environmentalists warned birds and marine life could be threatened by the plastic and chemical pollution.
Authorities fear a bigger disaster if the oil leaks into the ocean and nearby lagoons before the vessel can be towed away.
Sri Lanka’s State Minister of Fisheries, Kanchana Wijesekera, said on Twitter the X-Press Pearl was “sinking at the current position” and fishing activities and other vessels have been barred from entering the Negombo Lagoon.
“Emergency measures are (being) taken to protect the lagoon and surrounding areas to contain the damage form any debris or in case of an oil leak,” Wijesekera added.
Images of the vessel shared by Sri Lanka’s Navy showed the charred body of the container ship with its stern appearing to be submerged in the water as smoke continues to billow from its bow.
Wijesekera said the X-Press Pearl was being “towed away to deep waters” by a salvage company and the navy.
In a statement, the cargo ship’s operator, X-Press Feeders, said an inspection team had managed to board the ship on Tuesday after dousing the fire and found the engine room had flooded.
“There are now concerns over the amount of water in the hull and its effect on the ship’s stability,” X-Press Feeders said Wednesday. A previous attempt to tow the ship away was aborted on Tuesday due to a large ocean swell, it said.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, the MEPA said the cause of the sinking was due to a water leak at the back of the ship.
The X-Press Pearl, was sailing from India’s Gujarat to Colombo when a fire broke out on board on May 20, as it was nine nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast.
It 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 other chemicals onboard the ship are yet to be confirmed.
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.”