Sri Lanka fears major environmental disaster as container ship full of oil and chemicals sinks

The Sri Lankan authorities are very concerned about the half-sunk container ship carrying chemicals and oil on board. โ€œThe situation is very serious,โ€ says Terney Pradeep Kumara of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) to DeccEit.

Scientists from this Sri Lankan government agency are trying to map the extent of pollution. โ€œBut the water is very cloudy so we don‘t know, for example, how bad the coral is.โ€ A major environmental disaster is feared when the rest of the cargo ends up in the sea.

In the past day, debris and tons of small pieces of plastic have already entered the ecosystem from the containers. In addition to plastic, there are also dead birds, turtles and fish washed ashore in the area. In an area of 80 kilometres, fishing is no longer permitted; a noose for the population that is heavily dependent on fishing.

Help From The Netherlands

Together with a Dutch salvage company, the authorities are trying to reduce the extent of the environmental disaster. The sea of flames aboard the brand new MV X-Press Pearl was extinguished yesterday after thirteen days with the help of Smit Salvage from Rotterdam. The plan to tow the 186 metre long ship to the open sea subsequently failed.

The stern of the container ship was stranded on the seabed yesterday afternoon:

The authorities have initiated a criminal investigation into the disaster. The captain and other executives are not allowed to leave the island for the time being, the court ruled. The 25-member crew has been evacuated from the ship and is currently in quarantine. One of them is in the hospital with injuries to his leg.

The 186 metres long and 34 metres wide ship caught fire on May 20. At that time, the MV X-Press Pearl was anchored about 18 kilometres north of capital Colombo. The cause is still being investigated.

Charge burned

The ship is of Chinese manufacture and construction was completed at the beginning of this year. The ship sails under the Singaporean flag. Owner X-Press Feeders says in a statement that there are no indications that oil has been leaked into the sea. According to the enterprise, most of the cargo has already been burned.

The MV X-Press Pearl has almost 1500 containers, of which more than 80 would contain harmful chemicals, such as 25 tons of nitric acid. โ€œThat’s a very strong acid that causes burns,โ€ says Jacob de Boer, professor of toxicology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

De Boer explains that nitric acid is not flammable. To what extent it is harmful to (sea) animals and (underwater) plants depends on the concentration. โ€œIf a cloud is released at once, it can certainly affect the coral. But it dilutes very quickly in the water.โ€

Birds with stomach full of plastic

As far as known, 28 containers are filled with plastic. These are small grains that are used as raw materials for the production of plastic bags. Some of this has been in the water in the last few days. This is devastating for animals, explains De Boer.

โ€œ When birds eat the plastic, it stays in their stomachs and they don‘t get hungry anymore. They continue to keep the feeling of a full stomach and eventually starve.โ€ Most plastic balls, according to the toxicologist, will float. โ€œBut 28 containers full is really a lot. And everything that sinks will be there in 50 years. It’s hard to pick away all those grains.โ€

On the beaches, the washed up plastic is cleaned up by soldiers. More than a thousand soldiers in protective clothing collect the grains in bags every day. The beaches and coral reefs in the area are one of the largest tourist attractions on the island next to India.

The government does not advise anyone to touch debris from the containers, cargo or ship. Because of the chemicals, it is feared that they are harmful to health.