A fire-ravaged container ship began to sink off the western coast of Sri Lanka on Wednesday, increasing the likelihood that oil and dangerous goods will leak into the ocean and exacerbate what is already one of the worst environmental crises in the country’s history.
“The ship is going down,” said navy spokesperson Indika de Silva, Agence France-Presse reported. “The stern of the ship is underwater, the water level is above the deck.”
“As parts of the vessel are underwater, there is greater risk of pollution,” wrote Andrew Leahy, a spokesperson for X-Press Feeders, which operates the ship, in a message to The Washington Post. “The aft of the vessel is sitting on the bottom.”
A tugboat tried to tow the Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl to deeper water Wednesday without success, he added.
The Sri Lankan navy had warned of severe pollution if the ship were to go down at its current location just outside the port of Colombo, the South Asian country’s largest city.
Billions of tiny plastic pellets, or “nurdles,” that the ship was carrying floated into the sea after the fire started and began to blanket Sri Lanka’s yellow-sand beaches, reaching as far as 75 miles to the south. Dead fish, birds and sea turtles began to wash up on shore. Scientists have warned that ocean currents could eventually carry the pellets to beaches on the other side of the island nation, killing more wildlife and damaging sensitive ecosystems.
The X-Press Pearl is also carrying around 350 metric tons of fuel oil and the sinking further alarmed environmentalists, who were struggling to understand the amount and impact of debris already shed by the ship.
“This is the worst possible scenario,” said Muditha Katuwawala of Pearl Protectors, a Sri Lankan marine conservation organization. “With [the ship] sinking, what happens is that all that oil might come out … that is going to be so much more pollution.”
The cargo ship was loaded in Dubai and bound for Malaysia, according to an X-Press Feeders account of the incident. The crew noticed a leak in a container of nitric acid and asked to offload it at both the western Indian port of Hazira and the Qatari port of Hamad, but those requests were denied, the company said.
The origins of the fire go back to May 20, when the crew noticed smoke rising from the cargo hold, according to a company statement. The smoke quickly gave way to flames that enveloped part of the X-Press Pearl. Powerful explosions rocked the ship, forcing the evacuation of its crew.
Of the 1,486 containers aboard the ship before the blaze, 81 contained dangerous goods, including 25 metric tons of nitric acid, according to X-Press Feeders.
Authorities suspect the nitric acid was the source of the fire. The Sri Lankan navy has said the ship was also carrying caustic soda, sodium methoxide and methane.
Katuwawala said precise contents of the ship were not completely known – there is an ongoing police investigation into the incident – adding to uncertainty over the ecological impact of the disaster.
“We don’t know if there are additional containers [of plastic pellets] inside that could spill out,” he said, estimating that 3 billion to 4 billion tiny granules had already leaked. “If it sinks, all those containers, whatever the cargo is inside, will spill out.”