COLOMBO: Experts on Wednesday warned that a stricken container ship that caught fire 13 days ago off Sri Lanka causing one of the worst ecological disasters in the country’s history could now create an oil spill crisis.
Rescue teams have been working around the clock to tackle the blaze on the cargo vessel which was carrying hundreds of tons of chemicals and microplastic.
Locals living along the coastal belt have been advised not to eat fish from the waters until further notice, with a temporary ban in place since last week.
Douglas Devananda, Sri Lanka’s minister of fisheries and aquatic resources development, told Arab News: “We have advised fishermen in these areas not to go fishing as the people cannot eat the fish in the affected areas.”
A massive cleanup operation involving thousands of troops and Sri Lankan navy personnel continued on Wednesday as workers removed debris from beaches near the capital Colombo, including in the popular tourist spot of Negombo.
Other areas worst affected included Panadura, Moratuwa, Mt. Lavinia, and Hendala along 80 kilometers of coastline. The region is home to more than 1 million people and famous for its jumbo prawns, crabs, lobsters, seer fish, salmon, and sprats which the local fishing community relies on for a livelihood.
“There are some 5,000 fishermen who have been asked to refrain from fishing until further notice. They are being paid around $30 allowance with other relief measures, such as the distribution of dry rations, also being considered by the ministry,” Devananda added.
The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl burst into flames on May 20 when it was nearly 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo after setting sail from Gujarat, in India.
Since then, the Sri Lanka Navy and Indian Coast Guard have been trying to extinguish the fire, which destroyed most of the nearly 1,500 containers on board, 81 of which had “dangerous goods” inside.
The three-month-old, 186-meter-long ship also had 25 metric tons of nitric acid and other chemicals onboard along with 28 containers of plastic raw material which dispersed into the sea.
While the cause of the fire has not yet been established, Sri Lankan authorities suspect an acid leak could have been the trigger.
“The fire in the vessel has been completely doused,” Navy spokesman Indika De Silva told Arab News on Wednesday, adding that Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had ordered rescue workers to “try and move the ship into deeper seas.”
De Silva said: “They are encountering some difficulties since the vessel is stuck. If that is the case, there will be a possible oil spill from the vessel.”
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera recently warned that hundreds of metric tons of oil leaking into the ocean would cause “widespread ecological damage” to marine life and coastal communities.
On Wednesday, a team of navy divers was sent to inspect the vessel’s hull. De Silva said there were concerns over the ship’s stern resting low on the waterline due to a suspected leak.
However, one of the biggest worries was the prospect of fish and other wildlife swallowing the millions of plastic pellets that had fallen into the sea.
Dharshani Lahandapura, chairman of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), told Arab News: “This is the worst maritime environmental disaster … ever since the island has not faced such a situation of this magnitude.”
“Every day we are deploying around 1,000 workers to clean the affected areas with the assistance of the tri-forces and other environmental agencies of the country.”
She noted that her department had been collecting tons of waste materials that were being stored in a safe place and said that the MEPA would be concentrating on “delicate areas in the seas to protect mangroves, corals, and marine wildlife.”
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has launched a criminal probe into the fire and the resulting marine pollution.
On Tuesday, a Colombo court issued an order preventing the ship’s captain, chief engineer, and deputy engineer from leaving the island while its 25-member crew have been evacuated and quarantined at local hotels.
The court also ordered the vessel to be examined by a government-appointed analyst and for its documents, charts, and recordings to be confiscated.
Police spokesman, Ajith Rohana, told media that the country’s criminal investigations department had taken statements from the vessels’ crew, the harbor master, the ship’s local agents, officials from the wildlife department, and the MEPA, as part of the investigation.
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