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Sri Lanka faces ecological disaster from burning ship

Fishermen face losing their jobs as chemical waste kills marine life and damages the ocean system

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Published: June 01, 2021 04:09 AM GMT

Updated: June 01, 2021 04:15 AM GMT

Sri Lanka faces ecological disaster from burning ship

Sri Lankan navy personnel remove debris washed ashore from container ship X-Press Pearl, which has been burning in the sea off Colombo, on May 31. (Photo: AFP)

Antony Ruwan Silva, a Sunday school teacher from Negombo, says large quantities of chemical waste from the damaged container ship X-press Pearl wash ashore on the beach every day.

Fish and marine animals such as sea turtles can be seen dying and their bodies have been dumped on the beach.

"It has already been stated that the raw materials used for the production of plastics will affect the ocean system," said Silva. "Invisible microplastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters can be ingested by fish and in turn get into humans.”

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Sri Lanka's government has launched a criminal probe into the massive container ship fire that has swamped the coast with plastic pollution.

Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl caught fire off the coast of Colombo on May 20. The blaze continued for 11 days but appeared to have nearly burned out by May 31.

"Fishermen are at risk of losing their jobs as a result of this disaster, not for weeks but sometimes for years," said Silva.

Experts have said that it will take at least 20 years for the sea to recover from this unfortunate situation

According to experts, nitrogen oxide has been released into the air and sea in large quantities, increasing the risk of acid rain in the future.

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

Rescuers evacuated 25 crew members from the ship. Aircraft and vessels have been deployed to fight the blaze. 

Father Sujeewa Athukorala, parish priest of St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, said about 4,300 families have been displaced in his parish due to the environmental damage from the ship.

"Experts have said that it will take at least 20 years for the sea to recover from this unfortunate situation. They say that even small creatures and their eggs will be destroyed," he said.

A group of Catholic clergy who are in charge of parishes in the coastal areas affected by the blazing ship expressed their disappointment and urged the government to compensate all fishermen.

"Take immediate action to compensate all fishermen who will lose their jobs in the short and long term in the face of this ship fire," said 11 priests who signed a special statement on May 28.

"Identify and treat endangered coral reefs and provide dry rations to fishing families as soon as possible. We hope that action will be taken for the benefit of the fishermen, not media shows." 

Environmentalists have warned that tons of plastic granules and nitric acid will harm the ecosystem.

Dr. H.B. Jayasiri of the Sri Lanka Ocean University said the chemicals released by the ship could enter the seawater system and pose a threat to marine life in the short and long term.

"Among the substances that have been transported by the ship may be microplastics and nanoplastics, which can cause death if swallowed by marine life, as well as the risk of health hazards from the ingestion of these harmful substances into our diets," said Jayasiri.

This is a serious tragedy for our environment and it is likely to have an impact for another 20 years

Dr. Ajantha Perera, a scientist and university lecturer, said that when nitric acid falls into the sea, it destroys the calcium of aquatic life.

"Coral reefs are made of calcium carbonate, and the acid destroys the coral reefs we have been building for years," said Perera.

Marine experts warn that the impact of the ship fire will affect the Sri Lankan coast from Negombo to Mannar.

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

Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said the police would record statements of the ship's captain and crew following a complaint lodged by the Marine Environmental Protection Authority.

Silva said that in the long run the fishermen, the environment and seawater will face more threatening consequences.

"This is a serious tragedy for our environment and it is likely to have an impact for another 20 years. Therefore, the government needs to take maximum action to protect human beings and the environment," said Silva.

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