Three Indian vessels yesterday joined efforts to contain a major fire on a container ship off the Sri Lankan 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 Coast Guard 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 on Wednesday deployed to drop bags of fire retardant chemicals on the ship.
However, the fire has weakened the 186m-long vessel, and it could break up and spill oil, the Sri Lankan Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) said.
“The fire is covering the length of the vessel. The hull might not be stable for us to tow the ship away from our waters,” MEPA Chairperson Dharshani Lahandapura said.
The vessel, anchored outside Colombo harbor, 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 spread, 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,” Lahandapura added.
Authorities have played down the risk from the nitric acid as it is neutralized by sea water, but Lahandapura said that a large quantity of oil could spread to the tourist and fishing region of Negombo.
The military would be deployed to clean Negombo beaches if needed, the official 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,” Lahandapura said. “Our best option is to clean the beach and we suspect any clearing operation will take a few weeks, if not months.”
The 25 crew members on the X-Press Pearl were on Tuesday evacuated following an explosion. One has been hospitalized for minor injuries.
The ship, which was on its way to Colombo from India’s Gujarat state with nearly 1,500 containers, is anchored 14km offshore and can be seen from Negombo.
Residents who on Wednesday scavenged plastic raw materials that washed ashore were yesterday barred from entering the beach as the military deployed.
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