Billions of Plastic Pellets Released Into Ocean as Ship Sinks off Sri Lanka Coast

Authorities in Sri Lanka are concerned that the MV X-Press Pearl container ship sinking offshore will cause significant environmental damage.

The ship's cargo, containing 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals, was destroyed in a massive fire that lasted for 12 days. Authorities were unable to tow the ship away from the port in Colombo after the ship, operated by X-Press Feeders, began to submerge.

Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia, said the ship has already released three billion tiny plastic pellets into the sea that have washed up on nearby shores.

Pattiaratchi told the Associated Press that the pellets, known as nurdles, "will persist in the marine environment forever as they are not biodegradable." This could devastate marine life and cause further pollution of beaches.

There are also fears that oil from the vessel's fuel tank could also leak into the sea.

Sri Lanka Cargo Ship Sinks
Smoke billows from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl which carries hundreds of containers of chemicals and plastics, as its towed away from the coast of Colombo, following Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's order to move the ship to deeper water to prevent a bigger environmental disaster. SHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

The government already has banned fishing along about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of coastline.

The ship operator said Thursday that the vessel's stern was resting on the seabed about 21 meters (70 feet) below the surface and the ship's bow was "settling down slowly." It said salvage experts were remaining with the vessel "to monitor the ship's condition and oil pollution."

The company said its experts were coordinating with Sri Lanka's navy to deal with an oil spill or other pollution.

Sri Lankan navy spokesman Indika de Silva said the navy and coast guard were preparing for a spill with assistance from neighboring India. India has sent three ships to help, including one specifically equipped to deal with marine pollution.

Colombo port's harbormaster, Nirmal Silva, said there had been about 300 tons of oil on board and that experts believe it could have burned off in the fire.

"But we have to look at the worst-case scenario and we are not saying 100% there is no oil. There is a possibility that there may be some," Silva said. "So far we have not seen any oil spill. We consider we are lucky."

The fire erupted on May 20 when the ship was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometers) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.

The navy believes the blaze was caused by the vessel's chemical cargo which was carrying from the port of Hazira, India.

Sri Lankan police are probing the fire, and a court in Colombo on Tuesday banned the captain, the engineer and the assistant engineer from leaving the country. The government has said it will take legal action against the owners of the ship to claim compensation.

Sri Lanka's Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said "it wouldn't be an easy task to calculate the damage caused to our environment."

He told the media late Wednesday that an investigation was underway to determine what went wrong and whether the shipping company was responsible.

"If this disaster happened due to negligence, then those responsible should be punished," he said.

Plastic Pellets From Sri Lank Ship
Plastic pellets that got washed ashore from fire-damaged container ship MV X-Press Pearl is collected by the naval officers and kept in sacks on the beach at Kapungoda, outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, June 3, 2021. Authorities were trying to head off a potential environmental disaster Thursday as the Singapore-flagged ship that had been carrying chemicals was sinking off of the country's main port. (AP Photo/) Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo