Disaster feared as fire-hit cargo ship sinks off Sri Lanka coast

Ship carrying tonnes of chemicals is sinking, government and navy say, in one of the island nation’s worst-ever marine disasters.

Smoke rises from a fire on board the MV X-Press Pearl vessel as it sinks while being towed into deep sea off the Colombo Harbour [Sri Lanka Air Force Media/via Reuters]

A cargo ship carrying tonnes of chemicals is sinking off Sri Lanka’s west coast, the country’s government and navy said, in one of Sri Lanka’s worst-ever marine disasters.

Salvage experts were attempting to tow the fire-stricken container ship that had been loaded with chemicals into the deep sea as the vessel started to sink off Sri Lanka’s main port, officials said on Wednesday.

The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, along with other chemicals and cosmetics that were loaded at the port of Hazira, India, on May 15.

Smoke rises from a fire on the MV X-Press Pearl off Colombo Harbour [Sri Lanka Air Force Media/Handout via Reuters]

On May 20, a fire erupted on the ship, which was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18km) northwest of Colombo, waiting to enter the port.

Authorities battled the blaze for 13 days, as flaming containers laden with chemicals fell from the ship’s deck.

Water submerged the MV X-Press Pearl’s quarterdeck on Wednesday, a day after firefighters extinguished the fire.

Sri Lankan navy spokesman Captain Indika de Silva told Al Jazeera the rear part of the ship has sunk and that they have stopped towing it.

“The ship is resting in the bottom of the seabed now. There is no more towing. We have stopped trying to tow it out of the Sri Lankan waters,” he said.

“Now our concern is about any oil spill. We are closely monitoring this and so far we have not detected any spill. It will be devastating if that happens, but we are taking all precautions.”

Smoke rises from a fire on the MV X-Press Pearl off Colombo Harbour [Sri Lanka Air Force Media/Handout via Reuters]

The navy believes the blaze was caused by the chemicals being transported on the vessel.

Sri Lankan police are probing the fire and a court in Colombo on Tuesday imposed a travel ban on the captain, the engineer and the assistant engineer.

The vessel’s 25-member crew was evacuated last week after an explosion. They include Philippine, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals.

The blaze destroyed most of the ship’s cargo and polluted surrounding waters and a long stretch of the island nation’s famed beaches.

Sri Lankan navy members remove debris from the MV X-Press Pearl that washed up on a beach in Ja-Ela, Sri Lanka [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Tonnes of plastic pellets have swamped the island’s coastline and rich fishing grounds, creating one of the biggest environmental crises in decades, experts say.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) chairman Dharshani Lahandapura called it a “man-made disaster”.

“This is an unfortunate incident for Sri Lanka. It has negatively impacted the country in many ways. What we are doing right now is minimising the negative impact,” he told Al Jazeera.

Lahandapura said most chemicals on the ship were “highly reactive” and emitted through fumes and gases. “Some even dissolved in seawater,” he said. “There were no signs of an oil spill.”

Meanwhile, the government has banned fishing along an 80km (50-mile) stretch of the coastline, affecting 5,600 fishing boats, while hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to clean the beach.

Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez on Tuesday said the “beaches themselves are a sorry sight to behold”.

“Walking along some of these beaches in this vast stretch that has been affected, all you see is a blanket of white and black – they are the microplastic pellets mixed with a whole load of burnt, charred remains and debris material for dozens of kilometres as far as the eye can see,” she said.

Aanya Wipulasena contributed to this report from Colombo, Sri Lanka

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies