Sri Lanka faces ‘worst-ever beach pollution’ from burning ship

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Tonnes of plastic waste from a burning container ship is washing ashore in Sri Lanka in what’s likely the nation’s worst beach pollution crisis to date, a senior environmental official told on Saturday.

Thousands of military and security personnel in hazmat suits have been combing a stretch of coast near the Port of Colombo for debris as an international firefighting operation continues to douse flames aboard the MV X-Press Pearl. The Singapore-registered container ship caught fire on May 20 following an onboard explosion as it waited to enter the harbor. Among its cargo includes 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 278 tonnes of bunker oil, and at least 28 containers of polyethylene pellets, a raw material used in the packaging industry, officials said.

“There is smoke and intermittent flames seen from the ship,” Navy spokesperson Captain Indika de Silva said in a statement to AFP. “However, the vessel is stable and it is still in anchorage.”

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More concerning, though, are the millions of pellets washing ashore from cargo that fell off the ship. Bulldozers have been deployed to assist in clean-up efforts. Fishermen are temporarily banned from a roughly 50-mile (80-km) stretch of coast near the ship as a safety precaution, and authorities worry that thousands of jobs in the industry may be at risk. The affected coastline is also home to several tourist beaches, making the threat of an oil leak even more devastating. Experts are still assessing the impact on mangroves, lagoons, and local marine wildlife species, AFP reports.

“This is probably the worst beach pollution in our history,” said Dharshani Lahandapura, head of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment and Protection Authority, in a statement to the outlet.

Authorities now suspect the explosion was caused by a nitric acid leak on board, which the crew had been aware of since May 11, according to AFP. Rescue operations have evacuated all crew members, Reuters reported earlier this week.