Ship threatening worst environmental disaster in Sri Lanka’s history is now sinking

Ship threatening worst environmental disaster in Sri Lanka’s history is now sinking
The container ship’s stability is in question now

A container ship that had been burning for 13 days off the coast of Sri Lanka is beginning to sink, leading to fears about a massive oil spill in the ocean.

MV X-Press Pearl, carrying tonnes of chemicals and plastics had been smouldering for the past 13 days, covering tourist beaches on the western coast with oil and debris.

The Sri Lankan Navy had been working with their Indian counterparts to put out the fire, which, last week, was reported to be under control.

X-Press Feeders, operators of the container ship, confirmed on Tuesday that even though the salvors reported no visible fire aboard the vessel, “smoke is still emitting intermittently.”

Huge amount of debris including plastic pellets and containers have inundated the beaches and clean-up operations have been going on for almost a week now. But experts now fear an even greater maritime disaster in the country should the 278 tonnes of oil and 50 tonnes of gas in the ship’s fuel tanks leak into the Indian Ocean.

Fisheries minister Kanchana Wijesekera tweeted that the salvage company involved in the operation “has indicated that the vessel is sinking at the current location.”

These fears were strengthened when X-Press Feeders put out a statement in which they said that “there are now concerns over the amount of water in the hull and its effect on the ship’s stability.” It added: “Efforts to make a connection for towing failed after several attempts due to the tug’s movement caused by the swell.”

The operation was aborted for safety reasons, it confirmed.

Several eyewitnesses, including an agency photographer, said that the vessel’s stern was underwater.

Indika de Silva, Sri Lanka’s Navy chief on Wednesday said that the container ship is “facing an imminent risk of going down.”

The Sri Lankan government has launched a criminal investigation into the ship’s blaze and marine pollution as a result of it. It has seized the passports of three, including the captain. The crew had already been evacuated. It was reported last week that the crew members knew of the nitric acid leak from several containers on the ship.

The X-Press Pearl first reported smoke from the cargo hold while at Colombo anchorage on 20 May, the shipping company said.

X-Press Pearl was carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid which leaked and then caught fire. Officials said that nearly 1500 containers onboard have been destroyed in the fire.

Dharshani Lahandapure, Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority chief, said that the disaster was the “worst ever in my lifetime” adding that the ecological damage from the ship’s fire was being assessed.

Authorities had already placed a ban on fishing for the communities living nearby.

Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa urged those involved in the operation to minimise the damage to the coasts.

X-Press Feeders in a statement also said that it remains “fully focused on the ongoing firefighting and salvage operation and will continue cooperating with the relevant investigations into this incident.”