A chemical-laden cargo ship sank off the west coast of Sri Lanka on Wednesday after a fire lasting almost two weeks, adding to fears of a major environmental disaster.
The ship has already left the country’s coastline, which is covered with tons of plastic pellets, and is now threatened with spilling oil into its abundant fishing waters.
After the incident, the government banned fishing, an important industry, along the approximately 80-kilometer coast. Authorities have also dispatched hundreds of soldiers to clean up affected beaches and warned residents not to touch the rubble as it could be contaminated with harmful chemicals.
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Pamunugama Beach, north of the capital Colombo, is almost directly opposite where the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl has been anchored since a fire broke out on board on May 20th.
Since then, millions of bead-like pieces of plastic have been devastated by the fire, turning the once vibrant tropical coast into a scene of one of Sri Lanka’s worst marine disasters of all time.
The marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos, 41, said when she walked the beach on Wednesday it hit her like a brick wall.
Where there used to be gold sands and coconut trees, she told NBC News, is now a sea of plastic waste.
“I have dedicated my life to protecting and caring for the ocean around Sri Lanka,” said de Vos, executive director of Oceanswell, a research and education organization for marine conservation in Colombo.
“We work so hard to maintain and protect this. It was heartbreaking to see it that way. “
De Vos said one of the soldiers who was clearing out the pellets on Pamunugama Beach told her they took up to 3,000 bags a day.
“But I watched the waves come in and only brought more in,” she added.
Sri Lanka is famous for its beautiful coastlines and has become an emerging tourist destination in recent years after the end of the civil war in 2009. However, the tourism sector has been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2019 Easter attacks.
Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said inera a tweet Wednesday that emergency prevention measures have been put in place protect the lagoon and surroundings to contain damage from dirt or in the event of an oil leak.
A Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Capt. Indika Silva told NBC News on Wednesday that an attempt to tow the ship into deeper waters was unsuccessful and had to be abandoned halfway as the aft section of the ship sank and was resting the seabed while the bow remained afloat.
Silva said there was water on the ship and their main concern was the possibility of an oil spill, even though they had not seen an oil spill.
“We are ready with all the necessary equipment to react,” said Silva.
X-Press Feeders, owner and operator of the ship, also confirmed in a statement that efforts to move the ship into deeper waters and away from the coast had failed.
Wijesekera tweeted later on Wednesday that in the event of an oil spill, outriggers and skimmers would be deployed around the ship. There are also contingency plans for full beach cleanups, he said.
The ship, devastated by the fire, transported 1,486 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid as well as other chemicals and cosmetics.
When the fire was extinguished, burning containers loaded with chemicals had fallen from the ship’s deck or broke open on the deck and washed their cargo into the sea.
“It’s Sri Lanka’s worst environmental disaster,” Charitha Pattiaratchi, professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia, told NBC News on the phone from Perth, Australia.
Pattiaratchi said he was most concerned about the possibility of an oil spill should the ship sink completely and its fuel “sooner or later” leaked into the ocean. At the time of the incident, the ship had almost 300 tons of heavy oil on board, the shipowner said.
There is also uncertainty about the exact nature of the chemicals in the more than 1,400 containers on board, he added.
The Authority for the Protection of the Marine Environment said on his Facebook page Tuesday that six cleanups were carried out at 14 locations. X-Press Feeders said Wednesday it was working with local authorities to help clean up the coast.
Pattiaratchi said plastic pallets are a scourge for oceans around the world, with an estimated 230,000 tons entering the oceans each year, and the estimated 3 billion spilled off the Sri Lankan coast likely to migrate to other parts of the ocean.
Pattiaratchi said he expected them to make it to Indonesia and the Maldives in the next 40 to 50 days.
They are notoriously difficult to clean and are likely to stay in the environment “for generations to come”.
Although they are not known to be toxic to humans, Pattiaratchi says they can endanger marine animals by getting caught in the gills of fish or ingestion by sea turtles.
Local television channels in Sri Lanka show dead fish, turtles and other marine life that have washed ashore in recent days.
While the plastic pellets were difficult enough to deal with, de Vos said an oil spill would add another level of complexity.
“Imagine this black oil washing up on these beaches where we now basically have this plastic snow,” she said.
“We hope we don’t have to face that.”