An environmental disaster is underway in Sri Lanka

In recent weeks in Sri Lanka what according to local authorities is the worst environmental disaster in the history of the country is underway. On May 20, a cargo ship carrying various chemical materials caught fire off the western coast of the island, not far from the capital Colombo, spilling fuel and microplastics that are damaging marine life and are depositing on the beaches in the area. The firefighters and coast guard operations have been going on for more than ten days and the fire aboard the ship has mostly been controlled, but now the tricky part is figuring out how and when to move the wreck: if the ship were to sink, the impact on marine life in the area would be even more severe.

It’s been more than 10 days since the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl started catching fire while sailing the Indian Ocean. The ship was carrying about 25 tons of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and other dangerous chemicals, as well as 28 containers of raw materials used for the production of plastic bags; in addition, there were more than 300 tons of fuel in its tanks.

The crew of 25 were immediately evacuated, but the fire-extinguishing operations were complicated by both the monsoon winds and the fact that the materials on board were highly flammable and caused several smaller explosions. Since May 20, the ship has anchored approximately 9 nautical miles (16.7 kilometers) off the port of Kepungoda, some twenty kilometers north of Colombo, not far from Negombo beach, one of the most famous tourist resorts in the area.

The head of the Sri Lankan Marine Environmental Protection Authority, Dharshani Lahandapura, said it was probably “the worst environmental disaster in the history of the country”.

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.

Fishing was banned within 50 nautical miles of the crash site and the authorities 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.

One of the main problems is that plastic materials already dispersed in the ocean could further fragment and disperse into the environment, he explained to BBC lawyer and environmentalist Jagath Gunawarnadena. At the same time, the maritime authorities would like to move the ship further out to sea to try to limit the damage along the coasts, but at the moment experts are still evaluating whether it is safe to do so and with what methods.

According to the Sri Lankan authorities, the fire was caused by a leak of nitric acid. The government has promised to launch an investigation into the dynamics of the event and has assigned a special police group the task of questioning the ship’s captain and crew.

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