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Sri Lanka faces marine disaster as ship fire put out

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Smoke billows from the MV X-Press Pearl off the coast of Sri Lanka on Monday. AFP

Sri Lanka faces marine disaster as ship fire put out

A fire aboard a ship that triggered Sri Lanka’s worst-ever marine ecological disaster was finally extinguished on June 1 after a 13-day international operation, the navy said.

The near two-week inferno prompted a mammoth clean-up operation as huge volumes of microplastic granules from the Singapore-registered ship’s containers inundated 80km of beach.

The unprecedented pollution forced a fishing ban and saw thousands of troops deployed to scoop tonnes of burnt plastic from beaches.

Experts from Dutch salvage company Smit boarded the MV X-Press Pearl on June 1 and reported massive flooding of the engine rooms.

Sri Lankan navy divers were also deployed to examine the hull below the waterline to check for any cracks, officials said.

The fire was first reported on May 20 as the 186m long container carrier was about to enter Colombo port.

The blaze was initially contained, but strong monsoon winds fanned the fire, forcing the crew to evacuate on May 25.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered officials to move the vessel from its anchorage near the port and move it to deeper waters in a bid to minimise further coastal damage, his office said.

Sri Lankan authorities fear an even greater disaster should the 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of gasoil in the ship’s fuel tanks leak into the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka’s navy was joined by India’s coastguard and tugs brought in by Smit to battle the flames, which destroyed most of the nearly 1,500 containers onboard.

The three-month-old ship had 25 tonnes of nitric acid and other chemicals as well as 28 containers of plastic raw material onboard, much of which fell into the sea.

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”.

President Rajapaksa asked Australia on May 31 to help with assessing the ecological damage to the island, one of the most bio-diverse countries in South Asia, his office said.

MEPA chairman Lahandapura said the crew apparently knew of a nitric acid leak on May 11, long before the vessel entered Sri Lankan water en route to Malaysia and Singapore.

Sri Lanka on May 31 launched a criminal investigation into the fire and the marine pollution.

Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said the captain and chief engineer, both Russian nationals, had been questioned for 14 hours since May 31.

The third officer, an Indian national, was also questioned at length, he said, adding that a court had ordered on June 1 to impound the passports of all three pending investigations.

The ship was heading to Colombo from Gujarat, India when the blaze started, having previously visited Qatar and Dubai where the containers of nitric acid had been loaded.

Sri Lankan authorities suspect a leak of that acid triggered the fire.


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