Fears of chemical spill as container ship fire rages near Sri Lanka

Hundred tonnes of burning oil and acid could spill into the sea

Flames engulf the X-Press Pearl off Colombo on Tuesday. Sri Lanka Air Force via AP)
Flames engulf the X-Press Pearl off Colombo on Tuesday. Sri Lanka Air Force via AP)

Sri Lankan authorities were trying to put out a massive fire aboard a container ship off Colombo on Tuesday to avoid a chemical and oil spill.

Firefighters were struggling to bring the flames on the X-Press Pearl under control after the blaze intensified following large explosions earlier in the day, said the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. The fire was first reported by the crew last week. They have been taken to safety.

“We are trying our best to extinguish the fire as it broke out again due to the continuous reaction of the chemical materials in the containers and adverse weather,” Rohitha Abeygunawardena, minister of ports and shipping, said in a statement.

“We have made plans to carry out future activities in a manner that does not harm the country’s seas and marine environment.”

X-Press Pearl was carrying 1,486 containers with 25 tonnes of nitric acid, other chemicals and cosmetics on board, according to a statement released by Sri Lanka Navy. X-Press Feeders, which owns the ship, said specialised fire-fighting equipment had been brought in from Europe to reinforce salvage operations.

The authorities have also warned fishermen not to approach the vessel as some containers carrying dangerous chemicals have fallen into the sea.

State Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera urged them to inform authorities if they spot any containers.

Apart from a potential chemical spill there is a risk of an oil spill of about 100 tonnes. The area north of where the ship caught fire is known for dolphin sightings, and any spill could threaten marine life in the region.

Sri Lanka is preparing for a tier II oil spill, said Dharshani Lahandapura of the Marine Environment Protection Authority. This indicates an accident that needs response teams with specialised knowledge to intervene.

The vessel is carrying about 300 tonnes of bunker fuel, but some oil has already been removed.

“We are fighting the fire but we are preparing for the worst. Dispersal chemicals and booms available in Sri Lanka had been made ready,” Ms Lahandapura said by phone. “It can escalate into a Tier III spill. But for now the estimate is about 100 tonnes.”

X-Press Feeders operates a fleet of vessels. The X-Press Pearl was deployed in the company’s Straits Middle East shipping route and caught fire at Colombo anchorage.

Updated: May 25, 2021 09:11 PM

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