Earlier last month, a cargo ship carrying chemicals caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka – leaving behind an environmental disaster that the island is likely to have to live on for decades.
For days the vessel stood hot off the coast of Sri Lanka, and thick dark smoke billowed from it, visible for miles. But the X-Press Pearl now lies half-submerged off the coast of Sri Lanka, with its hull on the shallow ocean floor.
But even though the flames are already flooded, the problems are just beginning. There are still towers on the ship with containers stacked on top of each other, many of which contain chemicals that are highly dangerous to the environment – some of them have already leaked into the water, raising fears that this content could poison marine life.
In addition, tons of small plastic pellets have already been washed on local beaches nearby. And then there are the hundreds of tons of motor fuel sealed in the sunken hull that could also potentially leak into the sea. In addition to environmental threats, there are devastating consequences for local communities, such as fishermen who have lost their livelihood overnight and are likely to suffer for years to come.
Billions of plastic pellets
One thing stands out when looking at photos of the disaster – small round pieces of plastic that stretch almost as far as you can see. These plastic granules are used in the manufacture of almost all plastic products.
Since the end of May, similar pellets from the X-Press Pearl’s cargo have landed on the beaches of Negombo, while the fish have already been pushed out with swollen bellies and pellets stuck in their gills.
Plastic can take between 500 and 1,000 years to decompose and is likely to be transported from ocean currents to the coasts around Sri Lanka and even to beaches hundreds of kilometers from the shipwreck.
“Our whole family will starve”
For Negombo fishermen, however, the concern is not only what is inside the fish, but also the inability to catch fish. Fishing is currently banned in the affected area – which means that many of them have lost their income and livelihoods virtually overnight. Tiulin Fernando, who has been a fisherman for the past 35 years, says:
“The fish are farmed in the area’s coral reefs and authorities say all these breeding sites have been destroyed by hazardous chemicals. There is no other option but to jump into the sea and die. ”
While the government expects compensation and insurance money from Singapore-based shipowners, locals are not too optimistic that much of that money will be used to help themselves.
The most lasting impact that could affect the country for decades is that of chemical pollution. Among the most dangerous elements onboard are nitric acid, sodium dioxide, copper, and lead. Once in the water, these chemicals make their way into the belly of local marine life. Small fish can die quickly as a result of poisoning, but larger ones are less prone. Instead, by feeding on smaller fish, toxins will slowly build up in their bodies over time.
The cleaning work
Although there have been shipwrecks before, Sri Lanka has never encountered such poisonous cargo – and the country is not well prepared for difficult work like this.
Activists insist that international experts will be crucial. And the shipping company, which owns X-Press Pearl, has already commissioned an international company to respond to the crisis and says its specialists are in place in Sri Lanka.