Sri Lanka is facing a rapidly unfolding environmental crisis after a cargo ship that caught on fire last month has sunk, pouring tons of plastic pellets and huge amounts of chemicals into surrounding fishing waters. Government officials worry an oil spill could come next in what’s shaping up to be one of the worst marine disasters in the country’s history.
On Wednesday, authorities paused fishing along 50 miles (81 kilometers) of Sri Lanka’s coast, halting more than 5,600 boats. The government also deployed soldiers to clean up the mess, which began more than two weeks ago after an initial fire released billions of plastic pellets into the sea.
Tried Towing Ship to Deeper Waters
The cargo ship, MV X-Press Pearl, was carrying nearly 1,500 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid, 350 tons of fuel oil, and other chemicals, as well as large amounts of plastic products. Officials said Wednesday that they were attempting to drag the burning ship into deeper waters when it began to sink. X-Press Feeders, the company that owns the ship, said the ship’s aft is now resting 70 feet (21 meters) below the surface while the nose of the ship sticking out, pumping toxic smoke into the sky like a polluting iceberg.
“There is no more towing,” Sri Lankan navy spokesman Captain Indika de Silva told Al Jazeera. “We have stopped trying to tow it out of the Sri Lankan waters. Now our concern is about any oil spill. We are closely monitoring this and so far we have not detected any spill. It will be devastating if that happens, but we are taking all precautions.”
The Ship Had Been Burning for Weeks
The crisis started May 21, when the Singaporean-owned X-Press Pearl, which had loaded its cargo up in India and was anchored around 9.5 miles (18 kilometers) off the coast of the capital of Colombo, caught fire. Of the 25 crew aboard, two were taken to the hospital with injuries. Authorities are investigating the cause, but have said they believe it was due to a chemical reaction from a nitric acid leak. Authorities say they have opened a criminal investigation into how the fire started.
But on Wednesday, things took an even more alarming turn when the ship sank while being towed out to sea. Shocking aerial footage showed the smouldering wreck plunging into sparkling azure waters. Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority said it was likely due to a leak that sprung on the back of the boat. Regardless of the cause, it now raises the risk of even more toxic chemicals and oil being spilled into the ocean.
Crew Tried to Offload Ship Due to Toxic Leak
The operators of the ship, X-Press Feeders, told reporters that the leak had begun well before the ship reached Sri Lanka. The crew of the X-Press Pearl reportedly asked to offload its cargo due to the leak at earlier stops in both India and Qatar, but, the company said, these ports turned them away, saying “there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking unit.”
Billions of Plastic Pellets
Among its cargo, the X-Press Pearl was carrying 78 tons of plastic pellets stored in 55-pound (25-kilogram) bags. The pellets — known as nurdles — are melted down to produce various different plastic products. The fire caused billions of nurdles to spill from the ship and wash onto Sri Lankan shores, blanketing the coast with what looks like swathes of white plastic snow.
The nurdles are small enough to be ingested by fish and other animals. This can cause numerous health problems and result in death as countless images of plastic-filled marine life have shown. Research has shown that sea turtles will even seek out plastic as a meal owing to its smell.
There’s a chance these nurdles could also be contaminated with other chemicals from the ship. All these toxins could work their way up the food chain, including to humans given that fish are a huge source of protein for the Sri Lankan population. In short, any trouble for fish spells trouble for people, too.
‘It’s An Environmental Disaster’
Cleaning up nurdle spills on beaches is a huge challenge, involving lots of manpower to collect the pellets: a similarly-sized nurdle spill in 2012 in Hong Kong required 7,000 volunteers to clean up those beaches. Since Sri Lanka is in a strict nationwide lockdown as the country battles a third wave of covid-19, environmental groups said they haven’t been able to muster enough volunteers to kick off cleanup efforts.
“It’s an environmental disaster,” Sri Lankan marine biologist Asha de Vos told the Washington Post. The plastic pellets “will be in our beaches for a long time to come.”
The Disaster Will Probably Drag On
Before the boat even sank, the Sri Lankan Marine Environment and Protection Authority told local media that the plastic spill caused “the worst environmental disaster we have seen in our lifetime.” Other experts say monsoon tides and winds could wash the pellets away from the original disaster site, extending the crisis for a long time to come and to places far away.
Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia, wrote on Facebook that any nurdles not cleaned up “will persist in the marine environment forever as they are not biodegradable.”