The TLDR: A cargo ship laden with dangerous chemicals caught on fire off the coast of Colombo, and is now sinking—raising fears of a massive oil spill. It is being described as “the worst environmental disaster for Sri Lanka.” We look at how this happened, and the likely consequences.
Tell me about this ship
The Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl headed out from Dubai—via Qatar and India—and was en route to Malaysia. The 186m-long (610ft) ship left the Indian port of Hazira on May 15, and was nine nautical miles off the coast of Sri Lanka when it caught fire on May 20—which then raged for two weeks. It is now sinking into the sea—because the rear of the ship has sprung a leak.
The lethal cargo: There were 1486 containers on the vessel when the fire started—of which 81 of were ‘Dangerous Goods Containers’, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid.
Why did it catch fire?
The exact cause is not known yet. What we do know is that one of the nitric acid containers developed a leak. Nitric acid is a highly corrosive substance used to make fertilisers and explosives. The crew knew about the leak since May 11, and tried to get rid of the container, according to the ship’s management:
“Applications had been made to both ports [in Qatar and India] to offload a container that was leaking nitric acid but the advice given was there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking acid.”
Point to note: There is a widespread anger at the fact that Sri Lanka allowed the ship with a leaky container into its waters. Officials have lodged a police complaint against the captain—after he was rescued from the ship. A court has since issued an order preventing the captain, chief engineer and the additional engineer from leaving the country.
What are they doing about this?
It took the Sri Lankan and Indian navies days to put out the fire. But as the fire was being extinguished, the burning containers fell off the ship, spilling their toxic contents into the sea. Attempts to move the ship into deeper waters—and away from the coast—have failed:
“A navy spokesman, Capt. Indika Silva, said by phone Wednesday that an effort to tow the ship into deeper waters was not successful and had to be abandoned halfway through, as the rear part of the ship had sunk and was resting on the sea floor while the bow remained afloat.”
An added catastrophe: Now that the ship is sinking, there are new fears of the effects of a massive oil spill when it leaks its 300 tonnes of heavy fuel into the water “sooner or later”—contaminating the ocean and the nearby lagoons. BBC News reports:
“Environmentalist Dr Ajantha Perera [says]... that the sinking posed ‘the worst environmental scenario. With all the dangerous goods, the nitric acid and all these other things, and the oil in the ship, if it's sinking it will basically destroy the whole bottom of the sea.’”
Sri Lankan authorities are scrambling to take emergency measures to protect the lagoon and surrounding areas:
“Kanchana Wijesekera, Sri Lanka's minister of fisheries, said Wednesday that if there is a spill, booms and skimmers will be used around the vessel and at strategic locations, and spray will be used to disperse the oil slick”
What is the damage so far?
The most dramatic effects have been felt on the beaches along the coast—extending all the way to the south. These are now coated with ‘nurdles’—small pellets which are used to manufacture plastic:
“Nurdles are the raw materials melted down to produce plastics. Each kind of plastic is composed of nurdles of different compositions and colors. When plastics are recycled, they can be turned back into nurdles and the cycle is repeated. Nurdles are often shipped all over the world in large sacks to factories, where they are turned into various plastic products.”
A blanket of nurdles: X-Press Pearl was carrying three containers of these pellets,—each weighing 26 metric tons. And many bags from these containers fell overboard. And thanks to choppy seas during monsoon, they are being distributed far and wide, according to an expert in oceanography:
“These have been released to [the] ocean and are found on beaches to the south of Colombo - as time goes they will keep moving southwards as our model predictions show. They will also go into river systems such as Kelani, lagoons (Negombo) and also into Port city. They are transported by the wind and currents - will remain at the surface until beached and will persist in the marine environment forever as they are not biodegradable.”
Here’s how an environmentalist described the scene on the beaches: “It was nuts… It was basically [plastic] snow on our beaches, these tiny white pellets, and piles of them.”
Why nurdles are bad news: They wreak havoc on the food chain:
“Due to their small, round shape, they’re often mistaken for food by marine species, which either die from ingesting the pellets, or pass the plastic up the food chain. Nurdles can also absorb other chemicals over time, and once swallowed, can contaminate the food chain with high concentrations of these chemicals. In Sri Lanka, where fish is the main source of protein, this problem poses an immediate health concern for humans.”
What’s worse: These nurdles may be coated with toxic chemicals from the ship—which makes removing them even more challenging. The clean up operation on the beaches is expected to take a long time—and made more difficult by the Covid-driven lockdown which will make volunteer efforts impossible.
The bottomline: Back in August, we did our big story on a Japanese ship that ran aground on a coral reef off Mauritius—leaking thousands of tonnes of oil into the waters. The underlying cause for both these disasters are the same: a dangerous overcrowding of maritime routes which makes accidents like these more frequent. Maritime traffic has increased four-fold in the past twenty years. There have been 20 major maritime mishaps in Sri Lankan waters since 1994—and more than half of them occurred in the last five years.
NPR and BBC News offer good overviews of the disaster. Washington Post has a good guide to nurdles, while Mongabay offers a more detailed report on the damage in Sri Lanka. It is worth revisiting Forbes’ deep dive on the MV Wakashio disaster in Mauritius—as it details the structural problems with maritime shipping.