Frantic bid to stem Sri Lanka ship fire as oil spill fears mount

Sri Lankan Navy soldiers working to remove debris washed ashore from the container ship MV X-Press Pearl, on May 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - International salvage experts and Indian vessels on Thursday (May 27) joined a desperate bid to extinguish a huge blaze on a container ship off the Sri Lankan coast as fears grow that the vessel could cause a devastating oil spill.

Strong Indian Ocean winds have hampered efforts to douse an inferno on the Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl that has now been burning for eight days.

Three Indian coastguard vessels bolstered the firefighting operation while the owners said they have called in experts from Dutch salvage specialists SMIT to help.

A Sri Lankan military helicopter on Wednesday dropped fire retardant chemicals on the 186m long ship as the blaze spread.

The X-Press Pearl was carrying nearly 1,500 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, when the fire broke out close to Colombo port.

Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority (Mepa) now fears the vessel could break up and spew oil onto coastal beaches.

"The fire is covering the length of the vessel. The hull may not be stable for us to tow the ship away from our waters," Mepa chairman Dharshani Lahandapura told AFP.

The vessel, now anchored, is carrying 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of marine gasoil, she said.

Ms Lahandapura said a large quantity of oil now threatened to leak and hit the nearby tourist and fishing region of Negombo, 40km north of the capital.

"Given the very rough seas and the heavy monsoon winds, it is not possible to lay booms around the ship to contain a spill," she said.

"Our best option is to clean the beach and we suspect any clearing operation will take a few weeks, if not months."

The fire is believed to have started when a container of nitric acid began to leak, she said, and authorities are investigating reports that the crew knew about the issue before entering Sri Lankan waters.

"If the problem was addressed at that time, we wouldn't be having to deal with this crisis," the Mepa chief said.

Experts have played down the risk from the acid as it is neutralised by sea water.

Sri Lankan soldiers were deployed Thursday to clean Negombo beach as debris from eight containers that fell into the sea after the explosion washed ashore.

Police arrested eight people scavenging for plastic raw materials and cosmetics that washed up on Wednesday for violating coronavirus lockdown regulations.

They also seized two trucks used to transport polyethylene found on the beach - officials said the vessel was carrying 28 containers of the plastic for manufacturers in Sri Lanka.

In September last year, an oil tanker caught fire off Sri Lanka's east coast after an engine room explosion that killed one crew member.

The fire on the New Diamond tanker took more than a week to put out and left a 40km long oil spill.

Sri Lanka has demanded the owners pay a US$17 million (S$22.5 million) clean-up bill.

The 25 crew on the X-Press Pearl were evacuated on Tuesday following the explosion.

Two suffered minor injuries, the owners said, and one, an Indian national, has tested positive for Covid-19.

The ship was on its way to Colombo from India's Gujarat state. The vessel is anchored 14km offshore and can be seen from Negombo.

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