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Fire-ravaged container ship sinks, prompting Sri Lankan pollution fear

Published: Updated:

A container ship carrying chemicals sank off Sri Lanka’s capital on Thursday nearly a month after catching fire, raising concerns about a possible environmental disaster, officials said.

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

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A salvage crew was at the site to deal with any debris and report any spill, X-Press Feeders said.

The head of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority, Darshini Lahandapura, also confirmed that the ship had sunk.
She said it was currently unsafe to remove the wreck because of rough monsoon seas.

“The sea is very violent. In the rough season, we can’t do anything,” she said.

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

“Until such time, the owner of the vessel has appointed a caretaker company,” she said. “The entire area will be looked after by the caretaker company until the owner appoints a wreck removal company.”

Captain Tyutkalo Vitaly, skipper of the MV X-Press Pearl vessel which caught fire and sank while being towed, leaves the court room after being released on a personal bond while travel ban has been imposed for him in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on June 14, 2021. (Reuters)
Captain Tyutkalo Vitaly, skipper of the MV X-Press Pearl vessel which caught fire and sank while being towed, leaves the court room after being released on a personal bond while travel ban has been imposed for him in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on June 14, 2021. (Reuters)

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

The Sri Lankan navy believes the blaze was caused by its chemical cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals, most of which were destroyed in the fire. But debris including burned fiberglass and tons of plastic pellets have already polluted nearby beaches. There are concerns that a spill of remaining chemicals and oil from the ship could devastate marine life.

Authorities extinguished the fire last week, but the ship then began sinking and attempts to tow it into deeper waters failed when its stern rested on the seabed. The ship had remained partly submerged until Thursday.

The government has asked the United Nations and some other countries for help in assessing 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 cost of fighting the fire.

Read more: Sri Lanka ship fire extinguished after a 13-day international operation: Navy