On May 20, 2021, a Singaporean container ship X-Press Pearl had caught fire on the Laccadive Sea, 18 kilometres off the west coast of Sri Lanka near the capital Colombo. After a week of firefighting efforts, the vessel was declared a total loss and had started to sink releasing burnt debris. The X-Press Pearl was carrying 1,486 containers of chemicals and cosmetics, including 28 containers of plastic pellets and 25 tonnes of extremely combustible nitric acid and sodium hydroxide, which were loaded from a port in Gujarat, India. Apart from the burnt debris, it also threatens an oil spill as the ship had more than 300 tonnes of fuel in its tanks.
Explosions were heard as the ship burnt in the fire for the past two weeks and the burnt debris and oil residues have already caused massive damage to the nearby Sri Lankan coastline. The magnitude of the damage makes it one of the worst environmental disasters of Sri Lanka.
Journalist Rangana Shamil Fernando shares footage of the sinking ship recorded by the Sri Lankan Navy:
— Rangana Shamil Fernando (@ranganashamil) June 3, 2021
Reportedly, the ship had a nitric acid leak that had started on May 11 and the vessel arrived in Sri Lanka asking for help after other nearby ports refused to allow it in with its leak.
Journalist Azzam Ameen shares Sri Lankan Air Force footages:
— Azzam Ameen (@AzzamAmeen) May 26, 2021
#OperationSagarAaraksha2 Chemical laden container ship #MVXPressPearl sank and touched bottom. Part Superstructure & fwd portion visible. 3 #ICG Ships including PCV Samudra Prahari standby in PR configuration for response. Assessment by salvors in progress. pic.twitter.com/Ngi9xW7jYH
— Indian Coast Guard (@IndiaCoastGuard) June 2, 2021
Ocean Conservationist Maleesha Gunawardana tweeted:
Close to 3 billion plastic pellets may have been released into our waters. With a possible oil spill too as the vessel sinks, we are witnessing the worst marine pollution disaster in our lifetime in Sri Lanka. #MVXPressPearl #SriLanka pic.twitter.com/iTmqs3nDD2
— Maleesha Gunawardana (@Maleesha_G) June 2, 2021
The Sri Lankan authorities have banned fishing on an 80-kilometre stretch of coast which affected over 5000 fishing boats and the livelihoods of fishermen depended on them.
Sri Lankan environmental conservation organisation the Pearl Protectors tweeted regular updates about the disaster.
Sri Lanka's WP coastal belt is now covered in #PlasticPellets
This is an unprecedented marine environment disaster!
— The Pearl Protectors (@PearlProtectors) May 27, 2021
Stretching from Wattala to Negombo, the coast has become densely polluted. Debris like vessel wreckage, floating container parts, burnt cargo and chemicals along with oil and ash have covered the surrounding sea. The marine env impact is severe. #MVXPRESSPEARL #shipwreck #lka pic.twitter.com/DeZsjWFM8C
— The Pearl Protectors (@PearlProtectors) May 26, 2021
The organisation also highlighted the consequences in a statement on Facebook:
Large areas of the Western Province coast have been affected due to the recent MV X-Press Pearl ship accident. Due to the complexity of its cargo, several environmental challenges have arisen. These include high toxic levels both at sea and on the coast. A bunk oil spill, ashes and ship debris at sea and on the shorelines, high amounts of plastic pellets spilled onto the ocean now covering large swaths of coastline along the western side of Sri Lanka, toxic fumes mixed with monsoon rains resulting in toxic rain and poor air quality.
Hemantha Withanage, the Executive Director of Centre for Environmental Justice Sri Lanka wrote on Groundviews:
Although the impact on biodiversity is yet to be assessed, there are several reefs located in the area and the fauna and flora associated with the reefs will be seriously affected. Turtles, moray eel and stingray have washed up on beaches.
Hundreds of members of armed forces and other personnel are assisting the cleanup to remove debris in dozens of locations across the coast.
Journalist Roel Raymond Tweets:
Cleanup of debris from #MVXPressPearl continues
for the 6th day.
— Roel Raymond 🛑 (@kataclysmichaos) June 1, 2021
The Sri Lankan authorities are devising strategies to mitigate the environmental damage and has started an investigation into the cause of the accident.
— Sri Lanka Tweet 🇱🇰 (@SriLankaTweet) June 3, 2021
A video released by the Marine Environment Protection Authority of Sri Lanka on Facebook shows how the small plastic parts from the sinking MV X-Press Pearl ship are being painstakingly removed.
However, the fear is that the currents will take the debris to the West coast of Sri Lanka. Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of the University of Western Australia, shared a projection of the path of the plastic nurdles:
IT professional Buvini Liyanagamage tweets:
The #MVxpressPearl Captain, Chief Engineer and Second Engineer were barred from leaving #SriLanka by an order of the #Colombo Additional Magistrate's Court.#lanka #colombo #covid19 #marine pic.twitter.com/cPJJWRpio2
— Buvini Liyanagamage (@BuviniL) June 1, 2021
This kicked off a debate on the country’s legal framework for such matters. Kamanthi Wickramasinghe argued in an Oped on the Daily Mirror Online that Sri Lanka lacks a proper legal framework and preventive strategies to tackle a big maritime disaster such as this.