Sinking Singapore-flagged ship heightens fears of oil spill disaster off Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka on Thursday readied for the possibility of an oil spill after a cargo ship laden with chemicals sank off its western coast.

BANGALORE - As the smoking ship continues sinking off the Sri Lankan coast, the authorities brace themselves for a "catastrophic oil spill" that could devastate marine life and fishing communities for years to come.

After the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl caught fire on May 20 near Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo, the Sri Lanka Navy and Indian Coast Guard worked round the clock to douse the blaze.

The fire was finally brought under control on Wednesday (June 2), after which tug boats tried to tow the vessel into the deep sea to prevent pollution close to the shore.

But the still smouldering ship began to sink on Wednesday afternoon and the port authorities aborted the towing operation. The ship's bottom now touches the shallow sea bed  and the front half is slowly sinking.

X-Press Feeders, the Singapore-based company that owns the ship, said in a statement on Thursday (June 3) that there have been "no signs of debris and no reports of oil pollution as of 7am Sri Lanka time".

Dr Darshani Lahandapura, chair of Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority (Mepa), confirmed to The Straits Times that "there is no sign of bunker oil spillage" but once the vessel sinks fully, authorities fear the oil might flood the sea.

The X-Press Pearl has 300 tonnes of oil in its tanks, but Mepa is not sure how much of it has burned off in the 12 days of continuous fire.

"At Mepa, we have instructed the ship salvers to seal leaks, if any, in the oil tank, or pump out any remaining oil to an outside tanker to prevent any further damage to our marine environment," Dr Lahandapura said.

The ship also carries containers with cosmetics and chemicals such as nitric acid, urea, sulphuric acid, and liquid ethanol. Dr Lahandapura said "the chemicals on board are highly reactive, so their impact could be only short term".

The more stubborn pollutant, she said, are tiny plastic pellets called nurdles, which are used in plastics manufacturing, that have also spilled from the ship.

Heaps of pellets are already visible along Sri Lanka's western coastline. The military has redoubled clean-up efforts to neutralise the toxic chemicals and plastic pellets that have washed ashore.

"The pellets are mixing with the oil and nitric acid and maybe even other chemicals. This horrendous chemical cocktail presents a unique problem for Sri Lanka," said Mr Gary Stokes, a Hong Kong-based marine conservationist who had led the clean-up operation in Hong Kong after a typhoon blew off six containers of plastic pellets off a ship in 2012.

The fish-egg-like pellets are not toxic themselves, but if not cleaned up immediately, they could absorb toxins in the water and choke marine wildlife like blue whales, dolphins and turtles found in these seas. The pellets can also block the digestive tracts of fish that swallow them, thus starving them.

With fish being a staple diet for Sri Lankans and seafood export a major source of revenue for the island country, the pollution could also devastate the seafood industry.

The government has also banned fishing on the 80kms of beaches from Panadura to Negombo. With many popular tourist destinations as well on this stretch, locals fear that enduring beach pollution could dent their income. 

Sri Lanka's marine authorities are in talks with experts, including Mr Stokes, to marshal technology, manpower and resources for an effective clean-up strategy.

"Covid-19-related movement restrictions in place until June 14 and the presence of toxic chemicals in the water rule out large-scale clean-up drives by volunteers. So the military is entirely in charge right now for clean-ups," said Mr Muditha Katuwawala, coordinator of The Pearl Protectors, a marine conservation volunteer organisation.

Mr Stokes advised taking aerial photos of the entire coastline to identify sacks of pellets to prioritise hot spots with larger volumes before the pollutants are further dispersed.