A container ship carrying chemicals has been burning off Sri Lanka’s coast for more than 10 days, spilling tons of microplastics across the beaches and killing marine life, becoming the country’s worst ever environmental disaster.
The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl was heading to Colombo from the Indian state of Gujarat when the fire broke out on May 20, and the Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Coast Guard have been working to put out the fire since.
The ship was carrying 25 tons of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, 28 containers of raw materials for plastic bag production and other chemicals, as well as more than 300 tons of fuel in the tanks.
The 25-person crew was evacuated, but the flammable and toxic cargo has made it more difficult for authorities to extinguish the fire.
Although the worst part of the fire is now under control, the chemical spill has already caused harm to Sri Lanka’s coastline, including at popular tourist destinations, Negombo and Kalutara, coating the beach and ocean in microplastic granules and oil.
Microplastics are notoriously fatal to marine animals, and dead sea turtles, fish, and birds have been washing up on beaches. Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority said the chemicals had leaked into the sea and contaminated the water, probably causing ecological damage to coral reefs, lagoons and mangroves that could take decades to repair.
Sri Lanka has imposed a fishing ban within a 50-mile radius of the scene that is likely to affect at least 4,500 fishermen and launched a criminal investigation.
The crew members have been quarantined, and authorities said they would start questioning the members from Monday May 31. Authorities believed the fire was triggered by a nitric acid leak that the crew had been aware of since May 11.
A police spokesperson told AFP that they had already sent samples of polluted seawater and burnt debris from the vessel for a forensic report.