Sri Lankan authorities yesterday said that they are preparing for the worst-case scenario of a possible oil leak from a burned-out cargo ship sinking off Colombo’s main harbor.
The Sri Lankan Marine Environment Protection Authority readied oil dispersants, booms and skimmers in case of a leak from the MV X-Press Pearl, which has nearly 350 tonnes of oil in its fuel tanks.
The vessel, which burned for 13 days within sight of the nation’s west coast, has already caused the country’s worst maritime environmental disaster, littering beaches with huge volumes of tiny plastic pellets.
Now that it is sinking, officials fear an even greater ecological crisis if the ship’s oil leaks into the Indian Ocean. The bow of the vessel and the bridge are above the waterline, while the stern is submerged.
“There is no oil leak from the ship yet, but arrangements are in place to deal with a possible spill which is the worst-case scenario,” Sri Lankan Navy spokesperson Indika de Silva said.
An Indian Coast Guard vessel in the area has equipment to deal with a slick before the oil reaches shore, said the Sri Lankan Navy, which has requested additional assistance.
The Singaporean operators of the MV X-Press Pearl said that the vessel was continuing to slowly sink after efforts to tow it farther from the coast on Wednesday failed.
“X-Press Feeders ... can confirm that the ship’s aft portion is sitting on the seabed at a depth of about 21m, and the forward section is settling down slowly,” the company said in a statement yesterday.
Sri Lanka’s private Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ) said that it feared pollution from heavy metals in addition to an oil spill from the Singapore-registered vessel, which 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 said. “The damage to the marine ecosystem is incalculable.”
However, he said the silver lining was that 24 hours after the vessel’s engine room submerged, there was no visible sign of oil leaking.
The navy confirmed that there was no visible bunker oil leak, although there was a thin patch of oil on the water, probably from the sludge of burned lubricants carried as cargo on board.
Some oil was spotted near the beaches of Negombo, about 40km from Colombo.
The inundation of microplastic granules from the ship’s containers has forced a fishing ban and prompted concern for the environment.
“The ban is affecting 4,300 families in my village,” said Denzil Fernando, head of the Sea Street Fisherman’s Association in Negombo.
“Most people live on one meal per day. How long can we go on like this?” Fernando said. “Either the government must allow us to fish or give us compensation.”
Officials believe that the blaze destroyed most of the nearly 1,500 containers on board, while some fell overboard.
A cargo manifest showed that in addition to the 81 containers classified as dangerous, it was also carrying a large quantity of lubricant oil.
Authorities believe that the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak that the crew apparently knew about from May 11, nine days before the blaze started.
On Monday, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked Australia to help evaluate the ecological damage to the nation.
The Sri Lankan government has also launched a criminal investigation.
Police said that three officers from the ship — two Russians and one Indian — had been questioned and their passports impounded.
The ship was heading to Colombo from India when the blaze started. The 25-strong crew was evacuated last week. Two of them experienced minor injuries.
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