What has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in Sri Lankan history could have even greater repercussions than initially forecast: the ship loaded with hazardous materials that burned not far from the country’s western shores since May 20, sank. And now it is feared that it could dump the large quantities of fuel in its tank into the sea.
The ship, which was called the MV X-Press Pearl, burned for thirteen days anchored about twenty kilometers north of the capital Colombo, spilling nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and other dangerous chemical components, in addition to the contents, into the sea and towards the beaches. of 28 containers of raw materials used for the production of plastic bags. To avoid further pollution of the waters and coastal areas, an attempt was made to drag the ship offshore, but it was not possible: on Wednesday the stern ran aground on the seabed and the ship began to sink.
On Friday, X-Press Feeders, the ship’s owner, announced that teams of international experts went to Sri Lanka to study how to stem possible fuel spills together with the Navy and the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) of the ship. country. So far, however, weather conditions have made it difficult for Navy divers to control the situation, spokesman Indika de Silva told theFrance Media Agency. Silva also said it is possible that the fuel was all burned in the fire.
In the meantime, as a precaution, the MEPA has thrown into the sea, around the wreck, substances that are used in the event of oil leaks to separate it into small drops that can be dispersed more easily at sea. He also brought machines near the ship that do the same thing mechanically. In addition, an Indian Coast Guard ship equipped to intervene in cases of this type has been mobilized: it should be able to prevent any fuel in the water from reaching the beaches.
Merchant ships such as the X-Press Feeders use heavy fuel oil, a sticky black fuel made using petroleum refining residues, which remains after obtaining clear fuels such as gasoline and diesel. It is one of the cheapest and at the same time most polluting fuels in existence.
Chemicals released in the fire contaminated sea water and caused damage to animals, mainly fish and corals, and to lagoon mangroves, which could take decades to recover. The plastic materials have often been swallowed by fish and have been deposited along the coasts of the western parts of the country, from Kalutara to Negombo, where for days the operators of the coast guard have been working with several bulldozers to remove debris. If there were to be a spread of fuel, the damage to marine animals – especially birds – would be even greater.
Fishing has been banned within 50 nautical miles of the crash site and the authorities have warned locals not to touch the materials deposited on the beaches without adequate protection, as they could be highly toxic. According to experts, it will take weeks or even months to completely clean the beaches of debris washed ashore by currents.
Before the fire broke out, the MV X-Press Pearl was headed for Colombo and came from India. According to investigations by the Sri Lankan authorities, the fire may have been caused by a leak of nitric acid that the crew had been aware of for nine days before the flames spread. Police questioned three crew members – two Russians and one Indian – and seized their passports.