A fire-stricken cargo ship carrying tonnes of chemicals has sunk off the coast of Sri Lanka, sparking fears of an environmental disaster.
Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl was anchored and waiting to enter the port in Sri Lanka‘s capital, Colombo, when a blaze broke out on 20 May.
The ship was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid and other chemicals and cosmetics.
Most of the vessel’s cargo was destroyed in the fire, with containers polluting surrounding waters and a long stretch of the island country’s beaches.
The navy was preparing to deal with an oil spill after the ship sank.
There are concerns hundreds of tonnes of oil from fuel tanks could leak into the sea, devastating nearby marine life.
Authorities have been tackling the fire for over two weeks and were towing the ship into deep water when it began sinking early on Wednesday, a day after the blaze was extinguished.
A salvage crew tried to tow it to deeper water away from the coast, but the attempt was abandoned after several hours.
X-Press Feeders, operators of the container ship, said salvage experts were able to board the vessel and attach a tow line, but “efforts to move the ship to deeper waters have failed”.
“The ship’s aft portion is now touching bottom at a depth of 21 metres (70ft),” while the forward area remains afloat with smoke coming out of two cargo holds, the company said in a statement.
The fire and subsequent submergence of the ship could cause severe pollution, navy spokesperson Indika de Silva said.
The government banned fishing along an 80km (50 miles) stretch of coastline, affecting 5,600 fishing boats, while hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to clean beaches.
“The ship has dealt a death blow to our lives,” said Joshua Anthony, head of a region fishing union.
“We can’t go into the sea which means we can’t make a living.”
The navy believes the fire was caused by the chemicals being transported on the vessel.
Plastic pellets from the ship have also washed up on the coastline.
The ship had left the port of Hazira, India on 15 May and was on its way to Singapore via Colombo.
Sri Lankan police are probing the fire and a court in Colombo on Tuesday imposed a travel ban on the captain, the engineer and the assistant engineer leaving the country.
The Dept of #Fisheries has suspended vessels entering from the #NegomboLagoon and #fishing from Panadura to Negombo with immediate effect as the salvage company involved in #XPressPearl has indicated that the vessel is sinking at the current position.
— Kanchana Wijesekera (@kanchana_wij) June 2, 2021
The government has said it will take legal action against the owners of the ship to claim compensation.
The vessel’s 25-member crew, including nationals from the Philippines, China, India and Russian, were evacuated last week after an explosion.