Plastic coats Sri Lanka beach as ship fire threatens environmental disaster

Authorities fear the ship, which has been burning since May 20, could break up and spill its fuel and cargo

Tonnes of charred plastic pellets from a burning container ship washed ashore near Sri Lanka's capital on Friday as an international effort to salvage the vessel dragged into a ninth day.

Thick black smoke rose from the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, anchored just outside Colombo harbour, heightening fears that it could break up and spill its 278 tonnes of bunker oil.

Navy personnel in hazmat suits were sent to clean millions of plastic granules mixed with burnt oil and other residue that covered Negombo beach, 40 kilometres north of the capital.

The beach, normally a draw for tourists and known as a fishing centre, was declared off limits to the public. The smoking container ship could be seen on the horizon.

Bulldozers scooped up tonnes of the polythene pellets that came from at least eight containers that fell off the ship on Tuesday.

Officials said the vessel was known to carry at least 28 containers of the pellets, which are used as a raw material in the packaging industry.

The fire broke out on May 20 when the ship was waiting to enter the port at Colombo.

It is also carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid and an unspecified quantity of ethanol and lubricants in its 1,500 containers.

Authorities believe the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak that the crew had been aware of since May 11, Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority (Mepa) said.

Mepa chairman Dharshani Lahandapura said the crew could have avoided the disaster had they offloaded the leaking containers or returned them to the port of origin before entering Sri Lankan waters.

Ms Lahandapura said the authority was bracing for an oil spill if the X-Press Pearl breaks up – monsoon winds fanned flames the length of the ship.

She said the vessel was carrying 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of marine gas oil when the fire erupted.

Oil residue and charred containers washed ashore at Negombo.

Sri Lanka navy chief Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne said it would take days to extinguish the fire, even with the weather improving.

Four Indian vessels joined Sri Lanka's navy in the battle to contain the fire. Salvage operations are led by the Dutch company Smit, which sent specialist fire fighting tugs.

The 25-member crew were removed from the ship on Tuesday and two of them suffered minor injuries in the process, the owners of the vessel said.

Smit, renowned salvage troubleshooters, were also involved in dousing the flames on an oil tanker that caught fire off Sri Lanka's east coast last September after an engine room explosion that killed a crewman.

The fire on the New Diamond tanker took more than a week to put out and left a 40-kilometre-long oil spill. Sri Lanka demanded the owners pay a $17 million clean-up bill.

Updated: May 28, 2021 05:01 PM

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