Sunken Ship Cleanup Efforts in Sri Lanka Delayed by Monsoon Season

Image: Sri Lanka Air Force

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A ship that burned for nearly two weeks off the coast of Sri Lanka has finally sunk, and cleanup crews are eager to remove harmful debris from the ecosystem. But monsoon season is delaying the salvage efforts, and officials say there may still be oil and chemicals leaking from the ship’s remains. Meanwhile, the UN is helping to assess the damage, and the shipping company, X-Press Feeders, is facing a $40 million lawsuit. 

Why This Matters: As it burned, the ship released dangerous chemicals, oil, and microplastics into the surrounding water, prompting fears that the pollutants would enter biodiverse lagoons.

  • About 2% of the Sri Lankan economy relies on fishing. Monsoon delays mean that it will take longer to assess the damage done to the local ecosystems and wildlife, preventing life from returning to normal for coastal communities.
  • The longer this pollution stays in the water, the greater its impact on biodiversity, and the greater the danger that currents will carry it to distant shores.

Accountability and prevention will be critical going forward as officials and environmentalists push to hold X-Press Feeders financially responsible for the devastation. But without ocean protection and improved protocol for container leaks like this one, this won’t be the last major ship fire we see.

Sunken Ship

We want the wreck removed yesterday, but salvors can’t start their work in current conditions,” said State Minister of Urban Development and Coast Conservation Nalaka Godahewa. Monsoon season started this month and will continue through September. Officials previously attempted to tow the wreck to deeper waters but failed when the boat’s stern reached the seabed. Now, salvage is the only option, but the head of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority, Darshini Lahandapura, said that “the sea is very violent. In the rough season, we can’t do anything.” As a result, salvage may not be possible for months, and officials and environmentalists say that could be dire for local ecosystems, which are still recovering from the initial disaster.

The ship was carrying nitric acid, oil, and 78 metric tons of plastic pellets, which washed up on the beaches like “plastic snow.” Since then, dozens of dolphin and turtle carcasses have washed ashore, and officials are now performing autopsies to determine the cause of death.

So far, cleanup crews on land have collected 42,000 bags of debris from 138 beaches, totaling 1,075 tons of waste. Three UN Environment Program experts arrived in Sri Lanka on Wednesday to help evaluate and estimate the damage caused by the incident. Still, officials are already calling it Sri Lanka’s “worst marine disaster” in history. Experts say that cleanup must begin soon; otherwise, “it could become a dead region,” said Ajantha Perera, a Sri Lankan environmental activist, and scientist. “Because once the coral reef is gone, then the fishery would also go down. So we are looking at years, if ever, for regeneration.”

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