Sri Lanka fears marine disaster after cargo ship explosion

Fishing suspended along 80km after vessel carrying tonnes of chemicals sinks

Smoke billowing from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl which carries hundreds of containers of chemicals and plastics, as it is towed away from the coast of Colombo. Photograph: Sri Lanka Air Force/AFP via Getty Images

Smoke billowing from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl which carries hundreds of containers of chemicals and plastics, as it is towed away from the coast of Colombo. Photograph: Sri Lanka Air Force/AFP via Getty Images

 

A cargo ship carrying tonnes of chemicals sank off Sri Lanka’s west coast, its navy said on Wednesday, and tonnes of plastic pellets have fouled the country’s rich fishing waters in one of its worst-ever marine disasters.

The government on Wednesday suspended fishing along an 80km (50 mile) stretch of the island’s coastline, affecting 5,600 fishing boats, and hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to clean affected beaches.

The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid along with other chemicals and cosmetics, was anchored off Sri Lanka’s west coast when a fire erupted onboard after an explosion on May 20th.

Flaming containers laden with chemicals tumbled into the sea from the ship’s deck as emergency crews sought to contain the blaze over the ensuing two weeks.

The Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl as it is towed away from the coast of Colombo. Photograph: Sri Lanka Air Force/AFP via Getty Images
The Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl as it is towed away from the coast of Colombo. Photograph: Sri Lanka Air Force/AFP via Getty Images

The ship began to sink early on Wednesday, and a salvage crew tried to tow the vessel to deeper water away from the coast, fisheries minister Kanchana Wijesekera said in a tweet, but the attempt was abandoned after several hours.

“The towing of the fire-engulfed X-Press Pearl ship was stopped due to the rear end of the vessel hitting the sea bed,” navy spokesman Capt Indika de Silva told Reuters.

Photos taken by the country’s air force showed the charred wreck of the ship spewing white smoke as it listed to the right and began sinking, and part of it soon touched the seabed, just 22m (73ft) deep in the immediate area.

The navy was preparing to deal with an oil spill after the ship sank, Capt Silva added.

“The ship has dealt a death blow to our lives,” said Joshua Anthony, head of a region fishing union. “We can’t go into the sea which means we can’t make a living.”

The MV X-Press Pearl had left the port of Hazira in India on May 15th and was on its way to Singapore via Colombo. – Reuters