Sea life devastated as ship fire spews chemicals into sea off Sri Lanka

Plastic and pollution have devastated nearby beaches (Picture: AFP/Getty/Rex/AP)

Sri Lanka is facing one of the worst marine wildlife disasters in its history, after a burning ship spewed chemicals and microplastics into the ocean.

Dead animals washed up on the shore with plastic beads in their mouths, as debris littered previously pristine beaches and a major clean-up operation struggled to contain the damage. The authorities have also been forced to implement a fishing ban on 50 miles of nearby coastline.

Sri Lankan criminal investigators began questioning the crew of the burning cargo ship on Monday, when the Singapore-registered carrier was smouldering for a 12th straight day.

The MV X-Press Pearl was carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid and a huge amount of plastic raw materials, as it was about to enter the capital Colombo’s harbour on May 20, when a fire broke out.

The intense flames destroyed much of the cargo, some of which fell into the Indian Ocean.

Tonnes of microplastic granules from nearly 1,500 containers have inundated the country’s famous beaches, sparking fears of ecological devastation.

Several tons of plastic pellets used to make plastic bags are among the debris, with local television channels showing dead fish, turtles and other marine life that has washed ashore in recent days.

A crab roams on a beach polluted with polythene pellets that washed ashore from the ship (Picture: AP)
A major clean up operation is now underway (Picture: AFP)
Debris has littered previously pristine beaches (Picture: AFP)

Authorities have also warned residents not to touch the debris because it could be contaminated with harmful chemicals – leaving workers in protective suits to deal with the fall out.

The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) chief Dharshani Lahandapura said they were still assessing the ecological damage, but believed it was the ‘worst ever in my lifetime’.

The government agency says chemicals have mixed with the seawater and could cause severe damage to marine species and coral reefs.

MEPA said the captain of the vessel had known about a nitric acid leak on May 11, long before the vessel entered Sri Lankan waters.

Authorities are moving to sue the owners of the ship and its crew and claim damages from insurers.

A dead fish’s mouth containing plastic debris (Picture: Rex)
Smouldering fire and smoke have been seen on the ship for 12 straight days (Picture: AFP)
Members of Sri Lankan Navy remove debris washed ashore (Picture: AFP)

There were no visible flames aboard the vessel on mid-Monday, but smoke was rising from the rear section, its operator and officials said.

Firefighters were still working at the site, they said, adding that the stricken ship was still too hot to be boarded.

It comes after the vessel’s 25-member crew – including Filipinos, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals – were evacuated on May 25 when an explosion rocked the boat.

Navy spokesman Captain Indika de Silva said the flames are still burning but have been reduced to ‘small spot fires’ towards the rear of the ship. Firefighting tugboats continued to spray water on board, with support from Sri Lankan navy vessels and the Indian coast guard.

Detectives interviewed the captain and chief engineer – both Russians – and its chief officer, an Indian, at a hotel where they have been quarantined, police said.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Saman Abesiriwardana/Pacific Press/Shutterstock (11986878f) A dead fish, which had been washed ashore on beach near Wellawatta in Colombo, whose mouth containing plastic debris allegedly got into the ocean water from the Singaporean ship MV X-Press Pearl, which had caught fire near Colombo harbour last week. MV X-Press Pearl Ship environmental disaster in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Western - 31 May 2021

Fish and other marine wildlife, including turtles, have been devasted by the disaster (Picture: Shutterstock)
An Indian Coast Guard ship (L) was trying to douse the flames on Monday (Picture: AFP)
The ship was carrying nearly 1,500 containers (Picture: AFP)

A spokesman added: ‘We have questioned three members of the crew so far and the investigations are ongoing.’

The vessel’s operators, X-Press Feeders, said in a statement: ‘Select seafarers have today been helping local police with their enquiries into the fire and are cooperating with investigators.

‘We will respect this process and not publicly discuss operational details until the investigation has been completed.’

The ship, which is less than six months old, was heading to Colombo from Gujarat, India.

It had previously visited Qatar and Dubai and was due to go to Malaysia and Singapore after calling at Colombo.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

For more stories like this, check our news page.

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