On May 15, the MV X-Press Pearl departed Hazira, India with a cargo of hazardous chemicals and a belly full of oil. Registered in Singapore, the newly built container ship was bringing its load to ports in Qatar and Dubai.

As the ship neared its destination, the crew discovered a leak in a container holding nitric acid, which they reported. According to the owners of the ship, they requested to put in at Qatar to offload the leaking container, but were refused entry. It’s due to this that the ship was anchored outside Colombo Port in Sri Lanka when fire broke out aboard on May 20, 2021. The crew reported that the fire had been put out, but the ship remained stationary for several days while the cause was investigated.

On May 25, an explosion rocked the ship, igniting a new fire. The 25 crew-members of the X-Press Pearl were all evacuated, and the fire continued to blaze. The ship’s crane melted in the heat, and containers began to topple off her deck. Wind and sea conditions prevented an oil containment boom from being deployed. The Sri Lanka Maritime Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) declared the disaster a Tier II oil spill event as fuel oil began to spread around the ship. According to the ship’s details, approximately 378 tonnes of oil were aboard the ship.

The fire was still burning as of June 2, 2021, when news began to circulate that the X-Press Pearl was sinking. The port attempted to tow the ship into deeper waters and away from shipping lanes, but it was already too low in the water, with its keel resting on the seabed. Debris from the burning ship, including many tons of floating plastic pellets, has already begun to wash up on nearby beaches. It is not yet known how extensive the ecological damage from the chemical cargo will be.

The damage to Sri Lanka’s maritime ecosystem will take months or years to be evaluated. The government has already banned fishing along 80 miles of coast in response to spilled fuel.

Photo: People at the Pamungama beach area in western Sri Lanka watch as cargo spilled from the MV X-Press Pearl washes up on shore. Credit: Ruwan Walpola / Shutterstock.com