A container ship burned off Sri Lanka in the past 13 days – which carried hundreds of tons of fuel and plastic, as well as 25 tons of nitric acid, as well as other hazardous materials, including caustic soda, methane and sodium methoxide – in the Sri Lankan Navy warned on Wednesday of the Drowning, exacerbating one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history. The beautiful beaches of this island nation have already been inundated with plastic debris on the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl owned by X-Press Feeders, and now everything seems to be getting worse.
The container carrier was still emitting thick black smoke on Wednesday afternoon, even as the fire raged, while its stern was increasingly submerged. Officials explained that because efforts to put out the fire, with ships of a Dutch rescue company pumping water over the MV X-Press Pearl, increased the risk of it sinking. A source involved in the rescue operation told AFP that “a lot of this water got trapped in the stern, which fell one metre.” “We cannot pump this water because it is contaminated with the fuel.”
Anticipating an even worse catastrophe, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has already ordered the MV X-Press Pearl to be withdrawn from the site, off the port of Colombo, to the high seas to reduce coastal damage from further chemical spills.
However, concerns remain huge. After all, we are talking about one of the most biologically diverse countries in Asia, where already dead fish began to wash the shore en masse, suspending all fishing within 80 km. And the golden sand beaches of Sri Lanka, very popular with tourists from all over the world, turned white, as if hidden under a blanket of snow, under the 78 tons of plastic balls – or sediment, used as raw materials for the production of other plastic products – that were on board MV X-Press Pearl, according to environmental news agency Mongabay. Instead of tourists, they are full of military men in protective suits trying to clean them up.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Dinesh Wijaisingi, 47, a hotel worker in the coastal town of Negombo, whose economy is mainly based on tourism and fishing, told the New York Times. “When I saw this, three or four days ago, the beach was covered in these little balls. They looked like fish eyes.”
At the moment, it is not known exactly what environmental impacts can be expected from a leak of toxic chemicals as diverse as those on board the MV X-Press Pearl, but the Sri Lankan government has already asked Australia to help in the investigation.
The expectation is that the tide from cans will only make the situation worse – these plastic pieces can absorb chemicals over time, contaminating marine species that ingest them, and thus contaminating the food chain.
The situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, confinement applied in Sri Lanka, which has hampered clean-up operations. “It was hard to mobilize any volunteers,” Modita Katwawala of the marine environmental NGO Pearl Protectors told The Washington Post. “It is by far the worst marine environmental disaster in our region.”
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan authorities announced that three crew members of the MVX Press Pearl, including the captain and chief engineer, who are both Russian nationals, have been questioned and preventively detained.