Despite efforts to put out the fire aboard the MS X-Press Pearl, authorities expect the vessel, which has been burning off Sri Lanka’s coast since May 20, to sink. The Singaporean-registered ship is creating “the worst environmental disaster we have seen in our lifetime,” according to the Sri Lankan Marine Environment and Protection Authority (MEPA).
The MS X-Press Pearl was en route from Gujarat in India to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, when a fire started onboard, nine nautical miles off Sri Lanka’s coast. The ship carried 1,486 containers, including 81 that held “dangerous goods,” according to the ship’s operator, X-Press Feeders. Twenty-five metric tons of nitric acid were aboard, plus other chemicals not yet revealed.
The Sri Lanka Navy and Indian Coast Guard have worked together to extinguish the flames and prevent the ship from sinking or breaking into pieces. But things aren’t looking good for the MS X-Press Pearl, and they’re looking even worse for marine life, local fisheries and the beautiful beaches the South Asian country relies on for tourism revenue. Any moment, 350 metric tons of oil could leak off the ship and into the Laccadive Sea, which is part of the Indian Ocean. Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera said last week that the 18.6 miles of coastline between Colombo and Negombo is in danger. A commercial hub, Negombo is known for both its fisheries and beachfront resorts.
A 25-member crew managed to escape the burning ship, though two endured leg injuries from an onboard explosion on May 25. One crewmember tested positive for COVID-19, adding an extra layer of stress to the tragedy. He was transferred to a facility at a military hospital.
Sri Lankan officials are investigating what started the fire and looking at criminal and civil consequences. At the ship’s previous stops in Qatar and India, X-Press Feeders reported a nitric acid leak from one of the containers onboard. The company claimed, “The advice given was there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking unit,” according to CNN.
In addition to the oil spill and dangerous chemicals, environmentalists are worried about plastic pellets in containers that have already fallen into the sea. Fish, birds and other marine creatures often mistake these micropellets, also known as nurdles, for food. The nurdles could spread far beyond the site of the burning ship.
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