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Sri Lanka facing marine crisis from burning ship

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Navy personnel remove debris washed ashore from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl, which is on fire off the coast of Sri Lanka. AFP

Sri Lanka facing marine crisis from burning ship

Sri Lanka faces an unprecedented pollution crisis as waves of plastic waste from a burning container ship hit the coast and threaten to devastate the local environment, a top environment official warned on May 29.

Thousands of navy ratings using mechanical diggers scooped tonnes of tiny plastic granules on the beaches that had come from the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl that has been smouldering on the horizon for 10 days.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Protection Authority (MEPA) said the microplastic pollution could cause years of ecological damage to the Indian Ocean island.

The tiny polyethylene pellets threaten tourism beaches and fish-breeding in shallow waters.

Fishing has been banned along an 80km stretch of coast near the ship that has been burning for 10 days despite an international firefighting operation.

Orange-coloured plastic booms were set up in case oil leaks from the crippled ship reaches the Negombo lagoon that is famed for its crabs and jumbo prawns.

Thousands of small boats were beached at Negombo on May 29 because of the fishing ban.

Naval rating Manjula Dulanjala said his team had almost cleared the beach on May 28 evening, but were shocked to find it covered again the following morning. “This is like the coronavirus. No end in sight. We removed all the plastic yesterday, only to see more of it dumped by the waves overnight,” he said.

The pellets and waste were packed into green and white polythene sacks and taken away by trucks.

An officer leading another team said that in certain parts of the beach the microplastics and charred debris was 60cm deep.

Roman Catholic priest Sujeewa Athukorale said most of his parishioners were fishermen who risked becoming destitute.

“Their immediate need is to be allowed to go back to the sea,” he said. “There are 4,500 fishing families in my parish alone.”

Fisherman Lakshan Fernando, 30, said people feared the plastic waste could destroy mangroves as well as the corals where fish breed in the shallow water.

“No one is able to say how long we will have the adverse effects of this pollution,” Fernando told AFP. “It could take a few years or a few decades, but in the meantime what about our livelihoods?”

An oil leak from the vessel, said to be carrying 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of gasoil, would increase the risk of devastation.

Much of the ship’s cargo, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, lubricants and other chemicals, appeared to have been destroyed in the fire, officials said.

The X-Press Pearl caught fire as it waited to enter Colombo harbour and remains anchored just outside the port.

An international salvage operation is led by the Dutch company SMIT, which has sent specialist fire-fighting tugs. India has sent coastguard vessels to help Sri Lanka’s navy.

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