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Fears over pollution as ship burns off Sri Lanka coast

Locals warned to stay away from a beach as potentially dangerous substances wash ashore from a burning container vessel

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Published: May 28, 2021 08:46 AM GMT

Updated: May 28, 2021 08:59 AM GMT

Fears over pollution as ship burns off Sri Lanka coast

Earth movers remove debris washed ashore from the container ship X-Press Pearl, which has been burning for nine consecutive days in the sea off Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 28. (Photo: AFP)

Rights bodies have raised concerns about sea and air pollution after a ship carrying 1,486 chemical containers has been on fire off the Sri Lankan coast for nine days.

Several containers have washed ashore from the X-press Pearl, which is anchored about 9.5 nautical miles from the port of Colombo.

The navy has warned local communities to avoid the containers as they may contain dangerous substances. But locals have begun to collect items washed ashore to sell them.

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A Catholic priest who organizes environmental programs for children from Negombo said black substances can be seen in many coastal areas, and many residents from Panadura to Chilaw have gone to the beach to collect those materials.

"There is a huge amount of garbage on the beach, there is a layer of black oil in the sea and many fish have died," said the priest, who wished to remain anonymous.

"Fishermen in these areas have been advised not to go to sea. As a result, their daily income has dwindled. Some people who tried to sell the materials that were washed ashore have been arrested by the police." 

It is a violation of the rights of fishermen. If they go to court, the court will definitely consider their claims for damages

Due to the spread of Covid-19, travel restrictions have been imposed nationwide, but people have been visiting the beach.

The priest said large piles of waste and chemicals have made it difficult for fishermen to work.

"It is a violation of the rights of fishermen. If they go to court, the court will definitely consider their claims for damages," he said.

The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) said the liquefied fuel being transported in the ship could spill into the sea and cause serious damage to marine life, including coral reefs, as well as air pollution.

Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said an investigation has been launched to find the persons who had taken debris washed ashore from the wrecked ship.

The government said steps are being taken to prevent fuel leakage from the ship, while the navy and coastguard have also launched special security covering the beach areas.

Rescuers have evacuated 25 crew members from the ship. Aircraft and vessels have been deployed to fight the blaze. According to the navy media unit, heavy smoke and small flames can be seen on the ship.

The vessel left Hazira in India on May 15 and was heading for Singapore when it caught fire off the Sri Lankan coast.

Hemantha Withanage, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, said chemicals leaking from the containers including nitric acid and oil can cause damage, especially to coral reefs and fish.

"A large number of ships pass through Sri Lankan waters every day, but there is no agency to deal with such a disaster," Withanage said in a special online conference on May 27.

"We must mitigate damage to the marine ecosystem caused by the fire. If marine resources are destroyed, the country will suffer a great loss. Some say that those who touch these items have already started developing allergies." 

Lawyer Ravindranath Dabare said there are provisions to recover damages from the shipping company

MEPA has launched a special operation to minimize the impact on the coast and to keep the public from coming into contact with potentially dangerous chemicals. A special security arrangement has been put in place to prevent people from collecting items from the beach.

Lawyer Ravindranath Dabare said there are provisions to recover damages from the shipping company due to air pollution and water pollution caused by the disaster.

"The damage caused not only to the sea but also air pollution, the damage to the public as well as the fishermen near the coast needs to be calculated for compensation," Dabare said in the online conference.

Herman Kumara, convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, said it is important to form a voluntary group to discuss the environmental damage and take action against polluters.

"Six months ago, a similar vessel caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka," Kumara said in the online conference.

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