As chemical cargo ship sinks off Sri Lanka, locals fear the worst

As authorities in island nation brace for possible oil spill after ship sinks, anxious residents say the tragedy is a ‘double whammy’ after COVID.

A Sri Lanka navy officer watches his colleagues collecting plastic pellets in Pamunugama [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

Colombo, Sri Lanka – For more than a week, the routine on the beach at Pamunugama in Sri Lanka’s Western Province, 20km (12 miles) from the capital, Colombo, has been the same.

Sri Lankan navy officers arrive in their hazmat suits and start collecting fish eye-like plastic pellets that washed ashore after a fire erupted in a chemical cargo ship on May 20.

The authorities are now bracing for the possibility of an oil spill after the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl sank off the island nation’s western coast, in what is its worst-ever man-made environmental disaster.

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

Salvage teams attempted to tow the ship out of the Sri Lankan waters following orders from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

But the crew abandoned the mission after the ship started to sink on Wednesday afternoon. Parts of the ship were visible across the water on Thursday.

The cargo ship was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid and other hazardous chemicals.

Hazardous waste on the beaches

By Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of bags full of toxic waste had been collected by the navy officers from multiple locations along the beach, and taken away.

Kasun Milinda is severely affected by a drop in fish sales and fears an oil spill could make matters worse [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

A small stretch of the beach lies in front of 44-year-old Anton Chandana’s home.

“At first, there were large heaps of these little beads. The heaps were even taller than I am,” Chandana told Al Jazeera as he stood on the beach, watching smoke coming from the ship on Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, the plastic pellets continue to wash ashore on the beach, endlessly. Chandana said no matter how many are collected and taken away, the beach is covered in white again.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) and National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) are analysing the effects of the maritime disaster on the island.

Smoke rises from a fire onboard the MV X-Press Pearl container in the seas off Colombo Harbour [File: Sri Lanka Airforce Media/Handout via Reuters]

When contacted by Al Jazeera, the experts studying the incident said it was “too early to come to any conclusion”.

But experts such as marine ecologist Dr Kamal Ranatunga said the effects could be multifaceted.

“This ship was carrying hazardous chemicals. The impact from them can be big but short-term. Mostly, the fish eggs could have died in this area,” he told Al Jazeera.

Fears of oil spill

But Ranatunga said he was worried about a possible oil spill. If that happens, he said, the effects could be long term and “very persistent”.

“Maximum efforts must be put to recover from an oil spill,” he warned.

Peliyagoda fish market where a COVID-19 outbreak took place last year [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

Anticipating the disaster, the Sri Lankan navy and other state agencies, together with the coastguard from neighbouring India, are taking necessary precautions, including using offshore oil booms.

The navy has deployed a nine-member diving team to study the condition of the sinking ship.

In a news briefing on Thursday, the harbour master, Captain Nirmal Silva, said authorities believe most of the oil on board the ship has already burned.

The National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCOP) with MEPA and other agencies have been on standby in case of an oil spill, he said.

“Now it is 36 hours since the vessel went down. We have not seen an oil spill so far,” Silva said.

Ranatunga said the disaster will affect the livelihood of the communities living in the area that depend on the sea’s resources, especially the fisherfolk.

Residents, fearing chemical pollution, have already reduced their consumption of fish.

According to Douglas Devananda, Sri Lanka’s minister of fisheries and aquatic resources development, about 12,000 fishermen and another 3,993 people depend on the fishing trade in the area.

“We have banned fishing in this area. We are planning to study the issue for another 10 days before deciding to end or continue the ban,” he said. The government has decided to give an allowance of 5,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($25) to members of the affected community.

‘Don’t want it to get worse’

For fisherfolk like 36-year-old WKS Tharanga from Wattala in the Western Province, the tragedy is a double whammy.

Tharanga sits at his fish stall in Peliyagoda [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

Last year, sales of fish across the island dropped after a COVID-19 outbreak in a fish market in Peliyagoda, one of the key fishing spots in the country.

Tharanga, a father of two, also used to sell fish in the Peliyagoda market. He says he is still struggling with the low demand for fish.

“I come here at 2am daily to sell my fish. We have even reduced the prices but there are no buyers. If this continues, it is going to be very hard for us to feed our families,” he said.

Kasun Milinda, 23, another fisherman in the area, has the same story.

“My whole family depends on the income I make from fishing. But these days we are not allowed to go fishing. I don’t know what will happen to us if this continues.”

Milinda says he is hoping there will not be an oil spill from the ship because that will “scare consumers even more”.

Most of the residents near the coast also fear they may fall sick from the fumes being emitted from the burning ship.

“Sometimes when it rains, I can smell the plastic burning. It is very frightening,” 50-year-old Kumari Dissanayake, a mother of two from Pamunugama, told Al Jazeera. She says she has not bought any fish in days.

“It is bad as it is. The plastic is polluting this beach. We don’t want it to get worse than that,” says Dissanayake.

Source: Al Jazeera