Chemical ship sinks near Sri Lankan capital, sparking pollution fears

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A container ship carrying chemicals sank off the Sri Lankan capital on Thursday almost a month after catching fire, raising concerns of a possible environmental disaster.

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

A rescue team was on hand to deal with debris and report any spills, the operator, X-Press Feeders said.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority chief Darshani Lahandapura said the ship sank, adding that it would likely be dangerous to do much for a while due to the rough seas. monsoon.

“The sea is very violent. During the difficult season there is nothing we can do, ”she said.

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

“In the meantime, the shipowner has appointed a security company,” she said. “The whole area will be taken over by the security company until the owner appoints a wreck removal company.”

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X-Press Feeders also said that wreckage removal will begin after the monsoon ends, while adding that “wardens will install navigation warning lights and markers on the wreckage for the safety of others. ships “.

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

Authorities put out the blaze last week, but the vessel then began to sink and attempts to tow it into deeper water failed when its stern leaned on the seabed. The ship had remained partly submerged until Thursday.

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The Sri Lankan Navy believes the blaze was caused by its cargo of chemicals, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals, most of which were destroyed in the blaze. But debris, including burnt fiberglass and tons of plastic pellets, has already polluted nearby beaches. There are fears that a spill of chemicals and oil left over from the ship could devastate marine life.

The main concern was around 300 tonnes of bunker oil used as fuel for the ship. But officials said it could have burned down in the blaze.

Lahandapura said on Thursday that rescue experts had informed her that “there was no oil left given the nature of the fire, the heat, the duration of the fire and the position fuel tanks “.

Lahandapura and X-Press Feeders have so far said there has been no oil spill.

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The government has asked the United Nations and other countries to help it assess 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 costs of fighting the blaze.

Photograph: Sri Lankan Navy soldiers walk the beach looking for plastic debris washed up on the shore of the wrecked container ship MV X-Press Pearl in Kapungoda, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka on Monday, June 14, 2021. Photo credit: UKTN Photo / Eranga Jayawardena.

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