Inside Logistics

Burnt ship sinks, Sri Lanka fears pollution

Wreck of the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl is now sitting on the seabed


June 17, 2021
by Bharatha Mallawarachi THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

A container ship carrying chemicals sank off Sri Lanka’s capital on Thursday nearly a month after catching fire, raising concerns about a possible environmental disaster.

The ship’s operator said the wreck of the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl “is now wholly sitting on the seabed at a depth of 21 meters (70 feet).”

A salvage crew was at the site to deal with any debris and report any spill, said the operator, X-Press Feeders.

The head of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority, Darshani Lahandapura, said the ship had sunk, adding that it will likely be unsafe to do much about it for some time because of rough monsoon seas.

“The sea is very violent. In the rough season, we can’t do anything,” she said.

The monsoon season started last month and usually ends in September.

“Until such time, the owner of the vessel has appointed a caretaker company,” she said. “The entire area will be looked after by the caretaker company until the owner appoints a wreck removal company.”

Monsoon season

X-Press Feeders also said the wreck removal will start after monsoons subside, while adding that “caretakers will install navigational warning lights and markers on the wreck for the safety of other vessel.”

The fire broke out on the vessel on May 20 when it was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometers) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.

Authorities extinguished the fire last week, but the ship then began sinking and attempts to tow it into deeper waters failed when its stern rested on the seabed. The ship had remained partly submerged until Thursday.

Chemical fire

The Sri Lankan navy believes the blaze was caused by its chemical cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals, most of which were destroyed in the fire. But debris including burned fiberglass and tons of plastic pellets have already polluted nearby beaches. There are concerns that a spill of remaining chemicals and oil from the ship could devastate marine life.

The main concern has been about 300 tons of bunker oil used as fuel for the ship. But officials have been saying it could have burned off in the fire.

On Thursday, Lahandapura said the salvage experts have informed her that “there could not be any oil left considering the nature of the fire, heat, duration of the fire and position of the fuel tanks.”

Both Lahandapura and X-Press Feeders said so far there was no oil spill.

The government has asked the United Nations and some other countries for help in assessing the damage to the marine environment and coastal areas.

The country has submitted an interim claim of $40 million to X-Press Feeders to cover part of the cost of fighting the fire.