The MV X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-registered cargo ship had left the port of Hazira in Gujarat, India on May 15 and was en route to its country of registration via Colombo. The ship was carrying 1,486 containers out of which, 81 containers were holding "dangerous cargo." In addition to that, it had 25 tonnes of nitric acid along with other chemicals and cosmetics.
The vessel caught fire on May 20 and burned for almost two weeks before the flames were extinguished on June 1 with help from India's coastguard and the Dutch salvage firm SMIT.
The ship began to sink in the early hours of Wednesday. A salvage crew tried to tow the ship into deeper water away from the coast to minimise the risk of pollution, however the operation was later stopped after the rear end of the vessel hit the seabed.
According to reports, authorities believed that the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak that the crew knew of since May 11. The ship's owners said that although they were aware of the leak, ports in Qatar and India had refused them permission to offload, which is why they came to Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan government has launched a search operation to locate the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR), from the vessel, which would allow inspectors listen to recorded conversations between the captain and other crew members before and during the eruption of the fire. This would help them discover the origin of the blaze.
The South Asian country is yet to assess the impact and has sought Australia's help to prepare an estimate. Sri Lanka’s Marine Protection Authority (MEPA) however, said the plastic waste from the burning ship had probably caused “the worst beach pollution in our history”, and is likely to cause more damage in the years to come.
Tonnes of plastic pellets from the wreckage have washed up on an 80 kilometre coastal stretch along Sri Lanka's western seaboard, which has led to a ban on fishing.
Sacks containing debris washed ashore from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl which is sinking after burning for almost two weeks in the sea off Sri Lankas Colombo Harbour, are pictured on a beach in Colombo on June 3, 2021 | Photo: AFP
"The ship has dealt a death blow to our lives," Joshua Anthony, head of a region fishing union told Reuters, "We can't go into the sea which means we can't make a living."
The government has said it would seek compensation for the incident in accordance with local and international law. Rohitha Abeygunewardene, Sri Lanka's Minister for Ports and Development told a news conference on Wednesday, “We will calculate the cost from the beginning of this incident and claim compensation.”
As the ship sinks, officials fear more serious ecological damage if it's oil leaks into the Indian Ocean.
Navy spokesman Indika de Silva told AFP that has been no oil leak from the ship yet. “But arrangements are in place to deal with a possible spill which is the worst-case scenario,” he further added.
The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) is working towards safeguarding the ship and preventing its bunker oil - 297 tonnes of heavy fuel and 51 tonnes of marine fuel oil from spilling over.
According to the Sri Lankan navy, additional assistance has been requested from an Indian coast guard vessel in the area that has the equipment to deal with an oil slick, to prevent further ecological damage.
(With inputs from agencies)