Thursday, 17 Jun 2021

Sri Lanka braces for beach pollution as Singapore-registered container ship burns

COLOMBO (AFP) – Three Indian vessels on Thursday (May 27) joined the battle to contain a major fire on a container ship off the Sri Lanka coast amid fears that it could break up and spew out hundreds of tonnes of oil.

The X-Press Pearl has been blazing out of control for a week and with heavy winds battering the Singapore-registered vessel, authorities fear a new oil disaster on Sri Lanka’s beaches.

The Indian coastguard ships have joined a Sri Lankan navy ship and four private tugs spraying water on the X-Press Pearl, which has 25 tonnes of nitric acid in its cargo.

A military helicopter was deployed to drop bags of fire retardant chemicals on the ship Wednesday.

But the fire has weakened the 186m long vessel and it could break up and spill oil, according to Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA).

“The fire is covering the length of the vessel. The hull may not be stable for us to tow the ship away from our waters,” MEPA chairman Dharshani Lahandapura told Agence France-Presse.

The vessel, anchored outside Colombo harbour, is carrying 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of marine gasoil, she added.

The fire is believed to have started in a container of nitric acid and rapidly spread, Ms Lahandapura said.

Authorities are investigating reports that the crew had known about nitric acid leaks before entering Sri Lankan waters.

“If the problem was addressed at that time, we wouldn’t be having to deal with this crisis,” she said.

Authorities have played down the risk from the acid as it is neutralised by sea water.

But Ms Lahandapura said a large quantity of oil could reach the tourist and fishing region of Negombo, 40km north of the capital.

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The military would be deployed to clean Negombo beach if needed, she added.

“Given the very rough seas and the heavy monsoon winds, it is not possible to lay booms around the ship to contain a spill,” Ms Lahandapura said.

“Our best option is to clean the beach and we suspect any clearing operation will take a few weeks, if not months.”

In September last year, an oil tanker caught fire off Sri Lanka’s eastern coast after an engine room explosion that killed a crewman.

That fire was put out after more than a week with the help of India’s coastguard, but the New Diamond tanker left a 40km long oil spill. Sri Lanka has demanded the owners pay a US$17 million (S$23 million) clean-up bill.

The 25 crew on the X-Press Pearl were evacuated on Tuesday following an explosion. One has been admitted to hospital with minor injuries.

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The ship was on its way to Colombo from India’s Gujarat state carrying nearly 1,500 containers. The vessel is anchored 14km offshore and can be seen from Negombo.

Residents who scavenged plastic raw materials that washed ashore on Wednesday were barred from entering the beach on Thursday as the military deployed.

Sri Lanka is also under a strict lockdown as it battles the spread of coronavirus infections.

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