Sri Lanka starts cleaning coast after fire on ship

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As debris washes ashore from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl, the Sri Lankan Marine Environment Protection Authority begins to remove waste from the coast.

Bengaluru: The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) of Sri Lanka has started the process to remove the cargo that washed ashore from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl on Thursday. 

Dharshani Lahandapura, Chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) said, “We have requested the fire fighting forces to support us with the clean-up activities of the burnt materials that have washed up on the shores of the coastal areas.” 

Lahandapur explained that they had, on Wednesday, identified 10 highly polluted beach stretches, and manned that area. On Thursday, they learnt of another stretch near Bambalapitiya and Dehiwala that had more debris washed up. “We have deployed another set of teams to collect the waste and we will be looking into the possibility of disposing of the debris in a responsible manner. For that we have had a discussion with the central environmental authority and waste management facility, plus some of the private sector waste management solution providers,” said Lahandapura.

The X-Press Pearl which has been blazing out of control for a week was carrying a consignment of 25 tonnes of nitric acid and other chemicals from Hazira in Gujarat to the Colombo Port. According to reports, the cargo on the ship caught fire 9.5 nautical miles from the Port of Colombo where it was anchored on May 20.

Dr. P.B. Terney Pradeep Kumara, General Manager, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) said, “We are working on the waste removal process.” said 

A military helicopter was deployed to drop bags of fire-retardant chemicals on the ship on Wednesday. But the fire has weakened the 186m long vessel and it could break up and spill oil, said reports.

“When we got to know about the incident we alerted the incident management team. We kept all the authorities on stand-by,” said Lahandapura.

They plan to tackle the cleaning of the sea later on the advice of the the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), as the climatic conditions are not favourable.

“Right now it is not practical but we have kept everything ready and on standby to do the clean-ups if they give us a go. Also as of now there have been no oil spills, but we are prepared with the necessary equipment’s for when it occurs,” Lahandapura added.

While MEPA has requested the general public to keep off the shores and not get in close proximity of the washed-up debris, these requests have not been adhered to by the general public.

“Our advice to the general public and community in the close proximity is not to touch anything and not to take anything home, because some of these containers may contain highly toxic material hazardous to human health and the environment,” said Lahandapura. The Sri Lankan police have taken steps to recover material from the people. The MEPA has requested the Sri Lankan police to barricade the area and not  allow any citizen in the area unless they are involved in the clean-up process. 

Professor A. Navaratnerajah, Chairman of the National Aquatic Resource Research and Development Agency said that they are studying the impact of the damage to the environment and the marine ecosystem. “The washed off debris has also reached the lagoons. We are getting the samples of all the chemicals and other materials that are washing up to the shore. Since the ship is still burning we haven’t been able to collect all the samples,” said Navaratnerajah.

Navaratnerajah added that as of now there has been no oil spill. But, if there is an oil spill it would cause extensive damage to the marine ecosystem.

Twenty five crew members were evacuated from the ship on Tuesday. Two crew members have been admitted to the hospital with serious injuries. 

The Sri Lankan President in a recent Tweet said that the instructions to take maximum measures were conveyed to safeguard their coast from the debris and other impacts of recent fire in MV X-Press Pearl vessel.

In a press release on May 27, the Indian Defence Ministry stated, “Indian Coast Guard Ships Vaibhav and Vajra continue efforts to douse the intense fire onboard container vessel MV X-Press Pearl off Colombo. ICG Dornier aircraft has undertaken air reconnaissance of the area for assessment and support. No oil spill has been reported. ICG ship Samudra Prahari, a specialised Pollution Response (PR) vessel has also been despatched in PR configuration to augment the firefighting efforts and respond to oil spill, if occurred. ICG deployed its assets in response to request of Sri Lankan authorities and Govt of India directives thereon.”