Sri Lanka braces for beach pollution as ship burns down
Three Indian ships joined the battle on Thursday to contain a major fire on a container ship off the Sri Lankan coast, fearing it could shatter and spit out hundreds of tons of oil.
The X-Press Pearl has been spiraling out of control for a week and with high winds hitting the Singapore-registered ship, authorities fear another oil disaster on Sri Lanka’s beaches.
Indian Coast Guard vessels joined a Sri Lankan Navy vessel and four private tugs spraying water on the X-Press Pearl, which contains 25 tons of nitric acid in its cargo.
A military helicopter was deployed to drop bags of fire-retardant chemicals on the ship on Wednesday.
But the fire weakened the 186-meter (610-foot)-long ship and it could shatter and spill oil, according to Sri Lanka’s Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA).
“The fire covers the entire length of the ship. The hull may not be stable so that we can tow the ship away from our waters,” MEPA chairman Dharshani Lahandapura told AFP.
The ship, anchored outside the port of Colombo, carries 278 tons of bunker oil and 50 tons of marine diesel, she added.
The fire allegedly started in a container of nitric acid and spread quickly, Lahandapura said.
Authorities are investigating reports that the crew learned of nitric acid leaks before entering Sri Lankan waters.
“If the problem were fixed then, we wouldn’t have to face this crisis.”
The authorities have minimized the risk from the acid because it is neutralized by seawater.
But Lahandapura said a large amount of oil could reach the tourist and fishing region of Negombo, 40 kilometers north of the capital.
The army would be deployed to clean up Negombo beach if necessary, the official added.
“Given the very rough seas and the strong monsoon winds, it is not possible to put up dams around the ship to contain a spill.
“Our best option is to clean up the beach and we believe any clearing operation will take a few weeks or even months.”
In September last year, an oil tanker caught fire off the east coast of Sri Lanka after an engine room explosion that killed a crew member.
This fire was extinguished after more than a week with the help of the Indian Coast Guard, but the tanker New Diamond left a 40 kilometer (25 mile) long oil spill. Sri Lanka has asked homeowners to pay a $ 17 million cleaning bill.
The 25 crew members of the X-Press Pearl were evacuated Tuesday following an explosion. One was admitted to hospital with minor injuries.
The ship was on its way to Colombo from the Indian state of Gujarat, carrying nearly 1,500 containers. The ship is anchored 14 kilometers (7.5 nautical miles) offshore and can be seen from Negombo.
Residents who collected stranded plastic raw materials on Wednesday were barred from entering the beach on Thursday as the military deployed.
Sri Lanka is also under strict lockdown as it battles the spread of coronavirus infections.
aj / tw / i