Sri Lankan officials have begun preparing for a potentially devastating oil spill after a cargo ship carrying toxic chemicals caught fire off the coast and sank.
The MV X-Press Pearl had been carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and other dangerous substances when a blaze broke out on 20 May while it was docked nine miles (14km) from the port in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.
The cargo ship had 278 tonnes of bunker fuel oil and 50 tonnes of gas oil in its tanks, and was carrying 20 containers of lubricating oil.
Attempts were made over two weeks and in rough monsoon conditions to bring the chemical fires under control, as toxic materials spilled out into the ocean.
Fears began to mount that the cargo ship was sinking and a Dutch salvage company attempted to tug the boat further out to sea, but the stern hit the seabed on Wednesday.
Sri Lankan authorities said they were on standby in case oil began to spill from the half-submerged ship, which would have a catastrophic impact on the country’s marine life and fishing industry.
They confirmed the stern of the ship had sunk and that the front section, which remained above sea level, was “settling down slowly”.
Capt Indika de Silva, a Sri Lankan navy spokesperson, said helicopters and navy tugboats were closely monitoring the wreckage.
The navy had been unable to pump the oil from the vessel’s tanks due to the adverse weather conditions, De Silva said.
However, he emphasised that there had been no reports of an oil leak and, were any to spill from the wreckage, the navy was “prepared to prevent the oil from going elsewhere, so as not to cause any environmental damage”.
The ship’s operator, X-Press Feeders, said there were still no signs of an oil spill. It is thought some of the fuel may have burned in the fire.
However, the impact of the disaster is already being felt in Sri Lanka, where hazardous waste, microplastics and burned debris have washed up along the once-pristine shores, requiring the navy to conduct a clean-up operation.
Fishing has also been banned within a 50-mile radius of the wreck, causing devastation to thousands of locals who depend on the industry for their livelihoods.
A criminal investigation is under way into the cause of the fire. Authorities believe the crew may have been aware of a chemical leak 10 days before they alerted harbour authorities, while a search operation has begun to retrieve the ship’s voyage data recorder.
Sri Lanka’s ports minister, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, said: “We hope to get compensation in accordance with local and international law. We will never give up on that effort.”
The Centre for Environmental Justice, a conservation group in Sri Lanka, said it would be filing a public interest lawsuit against the Singaporean company that owns X-Press Pearl to claim damages for the environmental devastation. Authorities in Singapore have also launched their own inquiry.
It is likely to take at least six to eight months to carry out a full environmental damage assessment of the disaster, but renowned Sri Lankan environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella bleakly predicted: “This could be the tragedy, the death of our sea.”