Cargo Ship Carrying 25 Tons of Acid Sinks in Sri Lankan Waters; Marks One of Worst Environmental Disasters in Decades

A cargo ship on its way to Singapore caught fire off Sri Lanka and tons of chemicals were destroyed or spilled into the Indian Ocean as a result of the flaming containers.

The MV X-Press Pearl caught fire on May 20, as flame erupted on deck from what authorities believed to be a nitric acid leak, although Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that Sri Lankan authorities are launching a criminal investigation. The fire burned for 13 days before finally being extinguished on Tuesday, AFP reported.

The Sri Lankan government and navy said this is the country's worst marine disaster, as the sinking ship was carrying 1,486 containers filled with chemicals, including 25 metric tons of nitric acid.

Sri Lankan police said that the captain and chief engineer of the ship, both reportedly Russian nationals, as well as a third officer, have been questioned in an official investigation and AFP reported that their passports have been impounded.

Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) said in a statement that microplastic pollution could cause years of ecological damage to the Indian Ocean island. Waves of plastic waste are washing up on shore, and navy sailors were deployed to clean the beaches of the plastic pellets.

Sri Lanka's Western Province coastal belt is covered in Plastic Pellets known as nurdles.This is an unprecedented marine environment disaster!! Due to pellets, all fishing industry in western half of Sri Lanka & South of India will be severely affected for the foreseeable future

— Prem 🌍 (@premjourn) May 28, 2021

"This is like the coronavirus, no end in sight," Sailor Manjula Dulanjala told AFP. "We removed all the plastic yesterday, only to see more of it dumped by the waves overnight."

While the flames on the ship have been extinguished, authorities now face an even bigger problem as they attempt to tug the sinking ship further out to the sea while 278 metric tons of bunker oil and 50 metric tons of gasoline threaten to leak into the Indian Ocean.

The Sinking Vessel #XPressPearl is been towed away to deep waters by the salvage company with the support of the #Navy and other stakeholders involved. Images from just a few minutes ago.

— Kanchana Wijesekera (@kanchana_wij) June 2, 2021

On Wednesday, authorities attempted to tug the ship, but a navy spokesperson reported to AFP that as they dragged the ship, it began to sink.

"The stern of the ship is underwater, the water level is above the deck," spokesperson Indika de Silva said. "The ship will be towed as further away from the coast as possible before it goes down completely."

The ship is sinking in a rich fishing area, and Reuters reported that the government has suspended fishing along a 50-mile stretch of coastline. Fishing, which is a primary career in coastal towns, has taken a massive hit as a result of the incident.

Sujeewa Athukorale, a Roman Catholic priest, told AFP that there are 4,500 fishing families in his parish alone.

Joshua Anthony, head of a region fishing union, told Reuters: "The ship has dealt a death blow to our lives. We can't go into the sea, which means we can't make a living."

Local fisherman Peter Fernando told AFP he had never seen such destruction, even when a tsunami rocked the coastline in 2004.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked Australia to help evaluate the environmental damage.

"This is probably the worst beach pollution in our history," MEPA Chairman Dharshani Lahandapura said in a statement.

Newsweek reached out to Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority for comment but did not hear back before publication.

Smoke billows from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl, which was carrying hundreds of containers of chemicals and plastics, is 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. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)