Sri Lanka: A burning container ship causes fear of an oil spill

Three Indian ships assisted on Thursday in fighting a massive fire on a container ship off the coast of Sri Lanka, which threatens to explode and causes an oil spill by throwing hundreds of tons of fuel into the Indian Ocean.

The fire on the X-Press Pearl container ship, registered in Singapore, has been raging for a week without any effort to bring it under control, especially due to the strong wind. A military helicopter dropped nearly half a ton of fire retardant chemicals on the ship on Wednesday, to no avail.

The Indian Coast Guard has joined a Sri Lankan navy ship and four tugs in an attempt to put out a fire on the X-Press pearl, whose cargo involved 25 tonnes of nitric acid.

The fire weakened the structure of an 186-meter-long ship that could break and drain the oil, according to Sri Lanka, the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA).

Sri Lankan navy soldiers on a beach in Colombo Bay observe the smoke from a container ship fire on May 27, 2021 (AFP – LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI)

“The fire lasts the length of the ship. The hull may not be stable enough to pull it out of our waters,” MEPA President Dharshani Lahandapura told AFP.

The ship, anchored in the port of Colombo, also carries 278 tons of fuel in the bunker and 50 tons of marine diesel, she added.

The container ship was on its way to Colombo from the Indian state of Gujarat when a fire broke out 14km off the coast on May 20th. It should take a container of nitric acid and spread quickly to the rest of the ship, Ms. Lahandapura said.

Authorities are investigating the circumstances surrounding the nitric acid leak that the crew allegedly noticed even before entering Sri Lankan waters.

Sri Lankan Navy soldiers lift the remains of a burning container ship near Colombo Bay on the beach on May 27, 2021 (AFP - LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI)

Sri Lankan Navy soldiers lift the remains of a burning container ship near Colombo Bay on the beach on May 27, 2021 (AFP – LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI)

“If the problem had been solved then, we would not have faced this crisis,” the official added, worried about the Negombo tourist and fishing region, 40 kilometers north of the capital.

Given the very choppy sea and strong monsoon winds, it seems impossible, she said, to curb any spill. The army will be deployed to clean Negombo beach if necessary, she said, adding that the cleanup will take weeks or even months.

A Sri Lankan navy spokesman said Wednesday that all 25 crew members were unharmed, except for one member who was hospitalized with minor injuries.

In September last year, the New Diamond tanker burned for a whole week off the east coast of Sri Lanka after an explosion in an engine room that killed a crew member. A 40-kilometer oil spill ensued. Sri Lanka has asked the owners of the supertanker for $ 17 million to pay for the cleaning costs.

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