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Sri Lanka battles to avoid environmental crisis as container ship fire rages for seventh day

May 27, 2021

Sri Lankan authorities have spent a seventh day battling a blaze on a container ship loaded with chemicals, hoping to avoid a potential marine environmental disaster.


The fire on board MV X-Press Pearl, anchored off Sri Lanka's capital Colombo, has spread to the quarterdeck where the ship's bridge is located. A large number of containers have tumbled into the sea.


The Singapore-registered vessel, which is within sight of the shore, is carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid as well as other unspecified chemicals and cosmetics, the navy said.


Eight of its nearly 1,500 containers fell overboard on Tuesday, one of which washed ashore at the Negombo tourist beach 40 kilometres north of Colombo.


The 25 crew members evacuated the ship on Tuesday after an explosion.


Two of the crew sustained leg injuries and they remain in a hospital, the company said, adding that the others were in a quarantine facility in Colombo.


Sri Lanka's air force used helicopters to drop about 425 kilograms of fire retardant chemicals on the ship on Wednesday.


Dharshani Lahandapura from the Marine Environment Protection Authority said containment measures were being prepared in case chemicals or fuel oil spilled from the ship's engine and fuel tanks.


"Computer modelling showed any spill from the ship will reach the Negombo beach, and we are ready to tackle it," Lahandapura told reporters in Colombo.


"Given the monsoon wind pattern, we are concentrating on this area and we are moving equipment to deal with a spill," she said.


In September, a crude oil tanker caught fire off Sri Lanka's eastern coast after an engine room explosion that killed a crewman. That fire was put out after more than a week with the help of India's coastguard.