The vessel has already left the country’s coastline covered in tons of plastic pellets and now threatened to spill oil into its rich fishing waters.
The government has banned fishing, a crucial economic industry, along about 50 miles of coast in the wake of the incident. Authorities have also deployed hundreds of soldiers to clean affected beaches and warned residents not to touch the debris because it could be contaminated with harmful chemicals.
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Pamunugama beach, north of the capital Colombo, sits nearly directly opposite where the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl has been anchored since a fire erupted onboard on May 20.
Since then millions of bead-like bits of plastic washed up from the fire-ravaged ship and turned the once vibrant, tropical shore into a scene from one of Sri Lanka’s worst-ever marine disasters.
Marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos, 41, said that when she stepped onto the beach on Wednesday, it hit her like a brick wall.
Where there was once gold sand and coconut trees, she told NBC News, there was now a sea of plastic waste.
“I have dedicated my life to protecting and taking care of the ocean around Sri Lanka,” said de Vos, who is an executive director of Oceanswell, a marine conservation research and education organization, in Colombo.
“We work so hard to look after and protect this. It was heartbreaking to see it this way.”
De Vos said one of the soldiers clearing out the pellets at Pamunugama beach told her they have been taking away as much as 3,000 bags day.
“But I was watching the waves coming in, and just bringing in more,” she added.
Sri Lanka is famous for its beautiful coast lines and has emerged as a budding tourism destination in recent years after its civil war ended in 2009. But its tourism sector took a heavy hit from the Covid-19 pandemic and 2019 Easter terrorist attacks.
Sri Lanka’s fisheries minister, Kanchana Wijesekera, said in a tweet Wednesday that emergency prevention measures were being taken to protect the lagoon and surrounding areas in order to contain the damage from any debris or in case of an oil leak.
A Sri Lankan Navy spokesman, Captain Indika Silva, told NBC News on the phone Wednesday that an effort to tow the ship into deeper waters was not successful and had to be abandoned halfway through, as the rear part of the ship had sunk and was resting on the sea floor while the bow remained afloat.
Silva said there was water inside the ship and their main concern was the possibility of an oil spill, although they had not yet observed any oil slicks.
“We stand ready with all necessary equipment to respond,” Silva said.
X-Press Feeders, which owns and operates the ship, also confirmed in a statement that efforts to move the ship to deeper waters and away from the coastline had failed.
Wijesekera tweeted later on Wednesday that booms and skimmers will be used around the vessel in case of an oil spill. There are also contingency plans for full beach clean-ups, he said.
The fire-ravaged ship was transporting 1,486 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid, along with other chemicals and cosmetics.
As the fire was being extinguished, flaming containers laden with chemicals had fallen from the ship’s deck or broken open on the deck, spilling their cargo into the sea.
“It’s the worst environmental disaster for Sri Lanka,” Charitha Pattiaratchi, professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia, told NBC News on the phone from Perth, Australia.
Pattiaratchi said he was most concerned about the possibility of an oil spill should the ship sink completely, and its fuel leaking into the ocean “sooner or later.” The ship was carrying nearly 300 tons of heavy fuel oil at the time of the incident, the ship’s owner said.
There was also uncertainty about the exact nature of the chemicals in the more than 1,400 containers aboard, he added.
The Marine Environment Protection Authority said on its Facebook page Tuesday that six clean-ups were being conducted at 14 locations. X-Press Feeders said Wednesday it was working with local authorities to help clean up the shoreline.
Pattiaratchi said plastic pallets have been a scourge for oceans around the world, with an estimated 230,000 tons entering oceans every year, and the estimated 3 billion spilled off the Sri Lankan coast are likely to migrate into other parts of the ocean.
Pattiaratchi said he expects them to make it as far as Indonesia and the Maldives in the next 40 to 50 days.
Notoriously difficult to clean up, he said they will likely stay in the environment “for generations” to come.
Although they are not known to be toxic to humans, Pattiaratchi said, they can endanger marine wildlife by getting caught in the gills of fish or ingested by sea turtles.
Local television channels in Sri Lanka have been showing dead fish, turtles and other marine life that has washed ashore in recent days.
While dealing with the plastic pellets has been challenging enough, de Vos said an oil spill would add another layer of complexity.
“Imagine this black oil washing up on these beaches, where we now have this plastic snow basically,” she said.
“We are hoping we don’t have to face that.”