A Ship Burning at Sea Left These Pristine Beaches Covered in Plastic

Sri Lanka’s idyllic western beaches have been turned into a toxic wasteland after a cargo ship went up in flames.
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
sri lanka, ship, disaster, environment, beach pollution
Sri Lankan Navy remove debris washed ashore from MV X-Press Pearl. The ship has been burning for 12 days straight. Photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / Getty Images

Over the last 12 days, people living along the western coast of Sri Lanka have been waking up to smoke rising from the ocean, a stench in the air, and dozens of Navy workers in hazmat suits raking through millions of plastic pellets and tons of debris. 

Stretches of Sri Lanka’s pristine western beaches have been turned into a toxic wasteland after a cargo ship carrying toxic chemicals and cosmetic raw materials went up in flames almost two weeks ago.

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As authorities struggle to tame the smouldering fire, alarm over pollution and the impact on marine life is spreading as sea turtles, birds and fish have washed up dead with burns on their bodies.

sri lanka ship disaster pollution environment

Officials launched a criminal investigation into the fire and an assessment of the ecological damage. Photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/ Getty Images

The MV X-Press Pearl, a ship registered in Singapore, had nearly 1,500 containers carrying 50,000 pounds of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, and other chemicals - all of which have kept the fire burning.

While authorities managed to rescue all crew members 12 days ago, piles of microplastics run two feet deep in some parts of the coastline. Sri Lanka has also banned all fishing activities along its 80-kilometre (50-mile) coastline as they deal with the disaster.

Sri Lanka has demanded $17 million in compensation for the clean-up, and a criminal investigation is underway in what’s being called the country’s “worst beach pollution.”

Local authorities also warned of “slight acid rains” because of emissions of nitrogen dioxide from the destroyed cargos. Sulfur dioxide from acid rains can lead to chronic respiratory problems. 

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Attempts to put out the smouldering fire continue for 12 days. Photo: Sri Lanka Air Force / AFP

MV X-Press Pearl’s operator claims their crew had discovered the nitric acid leak days before, and had asked port authorities in Qatar and India for help, but they refused. “The advice given was that there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking acid,” the operator said. They added that the company will “cooperate with the relevant investigations” into the fire.

Local residents affected by the fire are demanding answers. A report by the Negombo Citizens' Union, an informal citizen collective of Negombo, called the ongoing crisis “indescribable”. 

sri lanka ship burning environment

Locals at Negombo say they have been waking up to a strong stench and discoloured sea waters. They are now urging the government to assess the damage and compensate affected communities. Photo Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP

“[We] have been exposed to a wide range of contaminants, including acids, chemicals and fires that are extremely harmful to the environment, human life, marine life, fish and aquatic plants,” the collective said. “The government should take steps to expose the truth about the damage done to the environment.”

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