Container Ship Burns, Sinks, Unleashing Plastic and Oil on Sri Lankan Shores

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A container ship off the coast of Sri Lanka that has been burning for 13 days has now begun to sink. Officials say that this could be the worst ecological disaster in the nation’s history, as plastic “snow” pellets wash up on beaches and oil spills into the ocean. Fishing in the region has been halted indefinitely, and experts say that birds and marine life will likely be impacted long-term. A massive cleanup effort is underway, and officials are hoping to prevent the damage from spreading further inland to critical lagoon ecosystems.

Why This Matters: Experts worry that pollutants from the burning ship, including dangerous chemicals, oil, and microplastics, could have wide-reaching impacts beyond the immediately affected zone. Sri Lankan marine biologist Asha de Vos said that currents could carry plastic pellets to the other side of the island, killing wildlife and ecosystems that locals rely on for food and income. Fishing makes up about 2% of the Sri Lankan economy. “Our oceans are covered in microplastics, but nobody thinks about it,” de Vos said. “I hope this drives home that we are all part of this problem.”  

Fire Storm

The X-Press Pearl was carrying 1,486 containers when the fire began, likely due to a leak in one of the ship’s containers, which carried 25 metric tons of nitric acid. X-Press Feeders, the company that manages the ship, said in a statement that the vessel attempted to port in both India and Qatar to unload the leaking container but was denied both times. “It was a case of not in my backyard syndrome,” said X-Press Feeders Executive Chairman Tim Hartnoll. The fire began on May 20, and despite efforts by the crew to deny the fire further fuel, an explosion rocked the vessel two days later. The 25-person crew was evacuated, and the Indian Coast Guard and Sri Lankan Navy launched efforts to put out the fire.

On the ship were 78 metric tons of plastic pellets, many of which poured into the ocean and washed up on local beaches. “It was nuts,” said de Vos, “it was basically [plastic] snow on our beaches, these tiny white pellets, and piles of them.” In addition to spilling nitric acid, officials worry about spills from the 350 metric tons of oil the ship held in its tanks. The nation has now banned fishing along 50 miles of coastline and expects more than 18 miles of coastline to be impacted by spilled oil.

Experts say that the damage could impact ecosystems for decades to come, including raising temperatures on the beaches, damaging the wildlife that brood their offspring there. Now officials are trying to avoid further damage. “Emergency measures are (being) taken to protect the lagoon and surrounding areas to contain the damage from any debris or in case of an oil leak,” said Sri Lanka’s State Minister of Fisheries, Kanchana Wijesekera. The X-Press Pearl will be towed to “deeper waters” by the navy, although environmentalists worry that this won’t do much to prevent further damage. Cleanup crews are also struggling to find volunteers due to the country’s COVID-19 lockdown. “It has been difficult to mobilize any volunteers,” said Muditha Katuwawala of Pearl Protectors and added that this event is “by far the worst marine environmental disaster in our region.”

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