Chemical freighter sinks off Sri Lanka, fouling rich fishing waters

A cargo ship carrying tons of chemicals sank off Sri Lanka’s west coast, its navy said on Wednesday, and tons of plastic pellets clogged the country’s rich fishing waters in one of the world’s worst marine disasters of its history.

The government on Wednesday suspended fishing along an 80 km (50 mile) stretch of the island’s coastline, affecting 5,600 fishing boats, and hundreds of troops were deployed to clean up the affected beaches.

The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid as well as other chemicals and cosmetics, was anchored off the west coast of Sri Lanka when a fire broke out is declared on board after an explosion on May 20.

Burning containers loaded with chemicals fell into the sea from the ship’s deck as emergency crews sought to contain the blaze over the next two weeks.

The craft began to sink early on Wednesday and a rescue team attempted to tow the vessel to deeper water away from the coast, Fisheries Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said in a tweet, but the attempt was abandoned after several hours.

Smoke rises from a fire aboard the MV X-Press Pearl as it sinks as it is towed on the high seas off the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka on June 2, 2021. Sri Lanka Airforce Media / via REUTERS

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“The towing of the fire-ravaged vessel X-Press Pearl has been stopped due to the aft end of the vessel hitting the seabed,” Navy spokesman Captain Indika de Silva told Reuters.

Photos taken by the country’s air force showed the charred wreckage of the ship spewing white smoke as it headed to the right and began to sink, and some of it quickly hit the seabed, to only 22 meters (73 feet) deep in the immediate area.

The Navy was preparing to deal with an oil spill after the ship sank, Silva added.

“The ship has dealt a fatal blow to our lives,” said Joshua Anthony, head of a regional fishing union. “We can’t go to the sea, which means we can’t make a living.”

The MV X-Press Pearl had left the port of Hazira in India on May 15 and was heading for Singapore via Colombo.

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