Sri Lankan officials are bracing for a potentially disastrous oil spill after the container ship X-Press Pearl caught fire and sank off the Sri Lanka coast.
Twenty-five metric tons of nitric acid have already been destroyed in the fire or spilled into the ocean, and plastic pellets called nurdles are washing up on miles of shoreline. Now, officials are worried that the ship’s 278 tons of bunker fuel oil and 50 tons of gas oil in its tanks, as well as the 20 containers of lubricating oil it had on deck, will find their way into the Indian Ocean.
The ship began to sink as tows were attempting to tug it further out to sea, and as of Wednesday, an official statement released by the X-Press Pearl Incident Information Centre confirmed that the stern of the ship hit the seabed nearly 70 feet under.
“The forward section continues to settle down slowly,” the statement added.
The Guardian reported that Sri Lankan authorities were on standby in case oil began to spill from the ship and Sri Lankan navy spokesperson Captain Indika de Silva confirmed that the navy is “prepared to prevent the oil from going elsewhere, so as not to cause any environmental damage.”
An oil spill could have a catastrophic impact on the country’s marine life and fishing industry, which has already been halted for a 50-mile stretch along the coast due to the incident.
The official statement said, “Ashore representatives of ITOPF (International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation) and Oil Spill Response are monitoring updates from the scene and remain on standby to be deployed in case of any reported spill.”
De Silva said that due to weather conditions, they were unable to pump any oil out of the ship’s tanks before it sunk.
India has already reportedly sent three ships to help prepare for a spill and cleanup, and Colombo port’s harbormaster, Nirmal Silva, believes some of the oil burned up in the fire.
“We have to look at the worst-case scenario, and we are not saying 100 percent there is no oil. There is a possibility that there may be some. So far we have not seen any oil spill. We consider we are lucky,” said Silva.
Still, Sri Lankan officials are preparing for the worst. Oil Spill Response continues to “coordinate with MEPA and the Sri Lankan Navy on an established plan to deal with any possible spill of oil and other pollutants. We remain committed to assist in the shoreline cleanup efforts led by MEPA and the Sri Lankan Navy,” the official statement said.
Asha de Vos, a marine biologist, founder, and executive director of Oceanswell, a Sri Lanka Marine research facility, told WDSU that an oil spill would be “absolutely disastrous.”
“It can coat species. The sea birds, for example, get very badly impacted by these things. Any species in the water, it can get stuck in the fish gills—so that could be really problematic,” she said.
And The Guardian claimed that it would take at least six to eight months to carry out a full environmental damage assessment of the disaster.
Sri Lankan environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella bleakly predicted: “This could be the tragedy, the death of our sea.”
Sri Lankan authorities are in contact with the ship’s operator, X-Press Feeders, who said that there were still no signs of an oil spill as of Thursday.
Newsweek reached out to X-Press Feeders for additional comment.
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