Burnt container ship at risk of sinking off Sri Lankan coast

Colombo June 2, 2021: A burnt-out container ship that has already caused Sri Lanka’s worst maritime environmental disaster was in imminent danger of sinking on Wednesday with several hundred tonnes of oil still in its fuel tanks, the navy said.

The MV X-Press Pearl, carrying hundreds of tonnes of chemicals and plastics, burned for 13 days within sight of the island’s coast before rescue workers finally managed to extinguish the blaze on Tuesday.

A huge amount of plastic debris has already inundated beaches, and authorities now fear an even greater disaster should the 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of gas in the Singapore-registered ship’s fuel tanks leak into the Indian Ocean. As tug boats on Wednesday began trying to tow the ship further out to sea, navy spokesperson Indika de Silva said it was ‘facing an imminent risk of going down”.

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

An official involved in the mitigation efforts said earlier that local experts feared the vessel was unstable. “The fire-fighting efforts also saw a lot of water sprayed onto the decks. Much of that water has settled in the stern which is down by about a metre, we can’t pump that water out because it is contaminated with oil,” the official told press.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa late Tuesday ordered it moved to minimise potential coastal damage. The presidential office issued a statement saying the expert suggestion was to take the vessel to the deep seas to minimise maritime environment damage. President Rajapaksa asked Australia on Monday to help evaluate the ecological damage to the island, one of the most bio-diverse countries in South Asia.

Sri Lanka’s navy helped Dutch salvage company SMIT to establish a tow connection with their tug to move the vessel away from the anchorage of the Colombo port, about 15 kilometres from the coast.

The inundation of microplastic granules from the ship’s containers has already forced a fishing ban and prompted concern for the wildlife and environment. The ship was also carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid which leaked and then caught on fire. Officials believe the blaze destroyed most of the nearly 1,500 containers onboard.

Marine Environment Protection Authority chief Dharshani Lahandapura said the ecological damage is still being assessed, but he believed it was the “worst ever in my lifetime”. Sri Lanka has launched a criminal investigation into the fire and the marine pollution. Police said that the captain and chief engineer, both Russian nationals, as well as a third officer have been questioned.

A court had ordered Tuesday to impound the passports of all three pending investigations.

The ship was heading to Colombo from Gujarat, India when the blaze started, having previously visited Qatar and Dubai where the containers of nitric acid had been loaded.

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