Tons of toxic cargo
How a fire aboard a container ship has caused one of the worst environmental disasters Sri Lanka has ever seen.
The waters off Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo seem calmer now, more than two weeks after a blazing 610-foot container ship lit up the coastline. Most of the X-Press Pearl, a four-month-old Singapore-flagged container ship, has settled on the bottom of the sea.
But the ocean has already begun to tell its own story. Lifeless fish are washing up on Sri Lanka’s sands, plastic pellets lodged in their gills. Those pellets have also covered picturesque beaches, lapped ashore by the waves. Dead turtles and birds have been reported on the coast as well, although the connection to the ship is still being investigated.
Satellite imagery released last week showed discolored water near the site of the disaster that some feared indicated an oil spill. On June 12, X-Press Feeders, the company that owns the ship, shared in a news statement that a “gray sheen” was observed emanating from the vessel but that there were no confirmed reports of fuel oil pollution. The government has not officially reported an oil spill. A spokesperson for the Sri Lankan navy, which has been investigating the site, told The Washington Post that “samples are being tested to ascertain the composition of the slick.”
LEFT: Radar satellite imagery taken June 8 shows bright objects and a black linear area, which corresponds to the last known location of the X-Press Pearl. (Sentinel-1/European Space Agency) RIGHT: Satellite imagery taken on June 7 shows a silvery discoloration emanating from where the X-Press Pearl is located. (Planet Labs)
Experts say the catastrophic effects of the disaster are only beginning to take hold. The ship’s cargo, now partly on the ocean floor, contains toxic chemicals and harmful items that could devastate Sri Lanka’s marine wildlife, as well as its fishing communities.
[A burning ship covered beautiful beaches in plastic ‘snow.’ Now Sri Lanka faces an environmental disaster.]
To better understand how this happened and the potential effect on Sri Lanka’s environment and economy, The Post mapped the ship’s path, had experts analyze its cargo, geo-located photos and videos of the debris on the country’s shores, and acquired models of the extent of its spread. The analysis shows the impact on Sri Lanka’s western coastline and the potential of further environmental damage that some experts worry will take years to repair.
Aboard the ship were nearly 1,500 containers, dozens of which contained dangerous goods, including nitric acid, sodium methoxide and methanol. In addition to the chemicals, the small plastic pellets pose a danger to marine life.
“It’s very close to a nuclear disaster, what has happened here,” said Muditha Katuwawala, a coordinator at the Pearl Protectors, a volunteer organization committed to protecting Sri Lanka’s marine life. “This is not a problem just in Sri Lanka. In the coming weeks, this is going to be a regional problem.”
According to X-Press Feeders, the ship “reported smoke from the cargo hold” near the port of Colombo on May 20. The next day, the ship reported a fire on deck. Sri Lanka’s government activated firefighting tugs and a helicopter to battle the blaze. One day later, an explosion was heard on the X-Press Pearl. Satellite imagery captured May 22, the day of the explosion, shows the fire and smoke rising from the ship.
On May 25, five days after the first signs of smoke, another explosion was heard. The X-Press Pearl’s crew and a firefighting team that had been brought on board were evacuated. On June 2, the ship started to sink, ultimately hitting the ocean floor 68 feet below. As of Tuesday, 25 days after the fire began, the vessel remains at sea, raising concerns among environmentalists about the possibility that oil and other dangerous chemicals might leak into the ocean.
It is still unclear what caused the fire, but Andrew Leahy, a spokesman for X-Press Feeders, said a leaking container of nitric acid — a compound used to make fertilizer and plastic — is “one of the many aspects in the lead-up to the fire which is now under investigation.” The company said the ship’s crew applied to the ports in Hamad, Qatar, and Hazira, India, to offload the leaking container, but the ports denied the requests because they said they did not have experts available to handle the container. The Post contacted both ports for comment but did not receive a response.
Close to 1,500 containers were aboard the ship. According to X-Press Feeders, 81 of them contained dangerous goods, including 25 metric tons of nitric acid. The Post obtained a copy of the manifest for the ship, which details all of the cargo on board. The company’s spokesman declined to comment on the document. The Post verified its contents by tracing serial numbers of the cargo containers back to the X-Press Pearl through various shipping company websites.
The Sri Lankan navy, whose divers have been inspecting the disaster site, said June 6 that “no abnormality” had been observed in the water. But scientists who focus on the region fear that if the chemicals seep into the ocean, they could leave a delicate marine ecosystem in distress.
“Many chemicals easily react with water,” said Dureshika Markovich, a California-based biochemist who works in a lab that handles toxic chemicals.
Other scientists said that in open water, some of chemicals on the container ship would be diluted and therefore not have a major effect on the wildlife.
Markovich highlighted some of the most concerning mixtures on board:
|Sodium methylate or sodium methoxide||A highly reactive substance used as a catalyst to produce methanol. Toxic when inhaled. When it reacts with water, it produces sodium hydroxide, which is corrosive to fish and changes the PH of the water.|
|Caustic soda flakes||Also known as sodium hydroxide. Used to make detergents and soap. In high concentrations, it can be very toxic for marine wildlife.|
|Methanol||A widely used chemical. It evaporates quickly, so its effects in water are hard to understand, but studies have shown that it can increase algae blooms, which can in turn block sunlight from the surface of the water, damaging marine life.|
|Nitric acid||What many think caused the fire. When mixed with air, it can cause acid rain. But when mixed with water, it produces nitrates, which are a food source for algae, causing blooms that destroy the water ecosystem’s balance.|
|Limestone||Is composed of calcium carbonate, a saltlike substance that is harmful to aquatic life.|
|Lubricants||Because they do not mix with water, these oil-like substances can block all the airwaves from the top of the water, depriving fish of oxygen.|
|Priled urea||A form of fertilizer. Contains a high nitrogen content, which is a food source for algae and can cause blooms.|
Ajantha Perera, a Sri Lankan environmental activist and scientist, said that any change to the pH of the water could alter sensitive algae, which in turn could kill parts of the coral reef that would push fish away from the area if there is no longer a food source for them.
“It could become a dead region,” Perera said. “Because once the coral reef is gone, then the fishery would also go down. So we are looking at years, if ever, for regeneration.”
Although not themselves toxic, the plastic pellets, known as nurdles, can strangle small sea creatures. When scattered on sandy beaches, they can cause the temperature of the ground to rise, affecting the incubation of turtle eggs.
“The most long-lasting event and widespread for the region is definitely the plastic,” said Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor at the University of Western Australia’s Ocean Institute. “They are in the ocean forever,” he added.
Nurdles have been recorded on a stretch of about 230 miles along the western coast of Sri Lanka, according to data obtained from a nurdle tracker run by the marine conservation research and education organization Oceanswell, which uses crowdsourced data to identify the spread of pellets along Sri Lanka’s beaches.
The pollution isn’t constrained only to the beaches. A computer model by Pattiaratchi at the University of Western Australia shows where the plastic pellets have most likely spread and where they will continue to spread based on ocean currents, wind speeds and ocean density changes. The Post re-created a model to show the potential extent of the nurdles based on data collected from Pattiaratchi’s team.
Herman Kumara, head of Sri Lanka’s National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, said the disaster will be damaging to both the marine life and the people who depend on it, as the government banned some fishermen from going out to sea.
“The area where the ship burnt and sunk is a very rich fish breeding and feeding ground. Immediately, people are reluctant to eat fish, so there is a huge threat to the income” of fishermen, he said, adding that the fishing economy in that part of the country could “totally collapse.”
As of Tuesday, the X-Press Pearl remains in the ocean, partly submerged. Leahy, the X-Press Feeders spokesman, said that once the ship settles, an assessment of the vessel and cargo and an investigation of the fire will be completed.
Sri Lankan officials are investigating and working to mitigate the potential damage. As of May 26, the country’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) reported that 42,000 bags of debris were collected from 138 beaches. As of June 10, MEPA said it had collected 1,075 tons of waste.
But the plastic spill remains overwhelming and unprecedented. Pattiaratchi said it was probably the worst nurdle spill in Sri Lanka’s history. As time goes on, he predicts, the pellets will continue to disperse, arriving in Indonesia in about 60 days, before reversing course during monsoon season later in the year to reach India, Sri Lanka again, the Maldives and perhaps Somalia, ending up in Cocos-Keeling Island and Christmas Island in one to two years.
Michael Miller contributed to this report.