COLOMBO: Sri Lanka on Thursday (Jun 3) readied for the possibility of an oil spill after a cargo ship laden with chemicals sank off its western coast, in what is already the country's worst man-made environmental disaster.
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 port city of Negombo when a fire erupted onboard after an explosion on May 20.
Flaming containers filled with chemicals tumbled into the sea from the ship's deck as emergency crews sought to contain the blaze over the ensuing two weeks.
The vessel, which was only four months old, began to sink early on Wednesday, and a salvage crew tried to tow the vessel to deeper water, away from the coast, but the attempt was abandoned after the rear of the ship touched the sea bed.
The ship's operators, X-Press Feeders, said in a statement on Thursday there were still no signs of a fuel oil spill from the ship, and that much of the toxic cargo had been incinerated in the fire.
"Salvors remain on scene to deal with any possible debris supported by the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coast Guard, who have oil spill response capabilities on standby," the statement said.
Sri Lanka's Harbour Master Nirmal Silva said no oil had leaked in the past 36 hours.
"Looking at the way the ship burnt, expert opinion is that bunker oil may have burnt out, but we are preparing for the worst-case scenario," Silva said.
High waves, rain and strong winds prevented salvage experts from boarding the ship to assess whether it could be refloated and moved further out to sea, he added.
But photos from the country's coast guard showed a layer of green film blanketing the ocean surrounding the vessel, and millions of plastic pellets have already fouled surrounding beaches and fishing grounds, forcing the government to ban fishing along an 80km stretch of coast.
"From an environmental view it is Sri Lanka's worst ever man-made disaster," said Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia.
The university's modelling indicated the plastic pellets from the ship - the raw material for shopping bags - would travel as far as Indonesia, India and Somalia, he added.
Sri Lanka's private Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) fears the disaster may also cause heavy metal pollution.
The ship was carrying 81 containers of "dangerous cargo" including acids and lead ingots.
"There is a chemical soup in that sea area," CEJ executive director Hemantha Withanage told AFP. "The damage to the marine ecosystem is incalculable."
However, he said the silver lining was that there was no sign of an oil spill yet.
Some oil was spotted near the beaches of Negombo, about 40km from Colombo, but the cause was not clear.
And even if an oil spill was averted, damage to the environment could stretch decades, an environmentalist told CNA.
Speaking on the morning programme Asia First, Dr Ajantha Perera, founder of Sri Lanka's National Program on Recycling of Solid Waste, said the worry now is that the containers on the ship would corrode, resulting in leakage.
"We have coral reefs in the area and several lagoons in the vicinity and Sri Lanka depends a lot on (the fishing industry)," she said.
"This disaster is not about today, tomorrow - it's about 10, 15 years, maybe 20 years to come ... we're leaving a real mess for the future generations."
The escape of microplastic granules from the ship's cargo has prompted concern for the marine environment as well as the local economy.
"The (fishing) ban is affecting 4,300 families in my village," said Denzil Fernando, head of the Sea Street Fishermen's Association in Negombo.
"Most people live on one meal a day, how long can we go on like this?" Fernando told AFP. "Either the government must allow us to fish or give us compensation."
Authorities believe the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak which the crew apparently knew about nine days before the blaze started.
Police said three officers from the ship - two Russians and an Indian - had been questioned and their passports impounded.
The ship was heading to Colombo from India. Its 25 crew were evacuated last week. Two suffered minor injuries.
The Sri Lankan government has said it would seek redress for the incident.
"We hope to get compensation in accordance with local and international law. We will never give up on that effort," the ports and ports development minister, Rohitha Abeygunewardene, told a news conference late on Wednesday.
"We will calculate the cost from the beginning of this incident and claim compensation."
Singapore authorities said on Thursday they had started their own investigation into the incident.