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Fears of environmental disaster as chemical-laden cargo ship sinks off Sri Lanka’s coast

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

The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, carrying 1,486 containers – including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, along with other chemicals and cosmetics – was anchored off the island’s west coast when a fire erupted on 20 May.

Authorities have been battling the blaze since then, as flaming containers laden with chemicals have fallen from the ship’s deck, the navy said last month.

Sri Lanka Navy personnel clear the beach from debris from damaged containers on the burning cargo vessel MV X-Press Pearl, 27 May 2021.

Sri Lanka Navy personnel clear the beach from debris from damaged containers on the burning cargo vessel MV X-Press Pearl, 27 May 2021.

EPA / AAP

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.

“The salvage company involved in the X-Press Pearl has indicated that the vessel is sinking at the current position,” fisheries minister Kanchana Wijesekera said in a tweet on Wednesday. 

The government has banned fishing along an 80-kilometre stretch of coastline, affecting 5,600 fishing boats, while hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to clean the beach.

A salvage crew is towing the vessel to deeper water, Mr Wijesekera added.

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,” the official told AFP.

‘The worst ever in my lifetime’

Officials had planned to pump contaminated water from the ship onto barges, but the operation has been abandoned.

The navy said an Indian coast guard vessel in the area had the equipment to deal with an oil slick if necessary.

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”.

President Gotabaya 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 has launched a criminal investigation into the incident. 

– With AFP 

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