Singapore-flagged container ship ablaze off Sri Lanka threatens chemical, oil spill

COLOMBO (BLOOMBERG, XINHUA, REUTERS) – The Sri Lankan authorities were on Wednesday (May 26) trying to douse a massive fire that has raged for six straight days aboard a container ship near Colombo’s coast, to avoid a chemical as well as an oil spill.

Firefighters were still trying to bring the flames on the Singapore-registered ship called X-Press Pearl under control, after it intensified following large explosions the previous day.

Five tugboats were fighting the fire, aided by a Sri Lankan navy ship anchored nearby, the Associated Press reported.

The blaze, which had spread to the quarterdeck where the ship’s bridge is located, was being exacerbated by strong winds due to changing weather conditions, the Sri Lanka Navy said.

The fire was first reported by the crew last week.

The crew members are safe and have been evacuated, according to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

Several containers from the vessel, however, had tumbled into the sea and are believed to have sunk.

“We are trying our best to extinguish the fire as it broke out again due to the continuous reaction of the chemical materials in the containers and adverse weather,” Mr Rohitha Abeygunawardena, minister of ports and shipping said in a statement on Tuesday.

“We have made plans to carry out future activities in a manner that does not harm the country’s seas and marine environment.”

X-Press Pearl, sailing with a Singapore flag, was carrying 1,486 containers containing 25 tonnes of nitric acid, other chemicals and cosmetics on board. It had been en route to Singapore from the port of Hazira in India, via Colombo. 

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore confirmed that the vessel was registered in the city. 

X-Press Feeders, which owns the ship, said specialised fire-fighting equipment has been brought in from Europe to reinforce salvaging operation.

The local authorities have warned fishermen to avoid the area and not to approach the vessel, as some containers carrying dangerous chemicals had fallen into the sea after the Tuesday blasts.

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Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority also warned people against touching or opening the packages or materials, and requested them to contact the navy or police upon the sight of any such items.

Apart from a potential chemical spill, there is a risk of an oil spill of about 100 tonnes.

The area north of where the ship caught fire is well known for dolphin sightings, and any oil spill could threaten marine life in the region.

Sri Lanka is preparing for a Tier II oil spill, Marine Environment Protection Authority chair Dharshani Lahandapura said, indicating an accident that needs response teams with specialised knowledge to intervene.

The vessel is carrying about 300 tonnes of bunker fuel, but some oil has already been removed.

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“We are fighting the fire but we are preparing for the worst. Dispersal chemicals and booms available in Sri Lanka had been made ready,” Ms Lahandapura said. “It can escalate into a Tier III spill. But for now the estimate is about 100 tons.”

X-Press Feeders is a common carrier operating a fleet of vessels for trans-shipment. The vessel was deployed in the company’s Straits Middle East shipping route and caught fire at Colombo anchorage.

The Sri Lankan authorities said experts from the Netherlands and Belgium were surveying the ship, while neighbour India had promised to send vessels and an aircraft to help fight the fire.

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