It’s visible in satellite images from just off Sri Lanka’s coast: a thin grey film that snakes three kilometres out to sea before disappearing into the waves.
This, experts say, is fuel oil leaking from the X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship that caught fire and sank off Sri Lanka’s western coast last month.
The slick is a visceral reminder of what observers say is a slow-motion environmental disaster – one of the worst in the country’s history – and of the mammoth effort that will be needed to clean it up.
“This is the biggest environmental catastrophe to hit Sri Lanka since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami,” said Thummarukudyil Muraleedharan, the acting head of the disasters and conflicts branch with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Thummarukudyil is among more than a half-dozen UNEP experts advising Sri Lanka’s government on how to contain the toxic fallout from the X-Press Pearl, which was carrying 81 containers of dangerous goods when it sank in June, according to its owner, X-Press Feeders. The ship’s cargo included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes of oil and, according to independent estimates, up to 75 billion small plastic pellets known as nurdles that has created a pollution crisis—one that could plague Sri Lanka for years.
“This is a toxic ship,” said Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group. “This will be a long-running disaster.”
Fire down below
Crew members first noticed smoke coming from the X-Press Pearl’s hold on 20 May while the ship was anchored off Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Over the next two weeks, fire crews battled a raging inferno punctuated by at least two major explosions. As the ship slowly sunk—it would be 17 June before it settled on the seabed—strong currents scooped up shipping containers and sprinkled them along Sri Lanka’s coast.
One container surfaced more than 100 kilometres south of the wreck, coating prime tourist beaches near the southwestern resort town of Galle with nurdles.
“It was like a cluster bomb,” said Hassan Partow, part of UNEP’s disaster response team.
For Sri Lankans, the small plastic pellets, which are about the size of a lentil, have been the most visible sign of the X-Press Pearl sinking.
Using publicly available data, Withanage estimates the ship contained 70-75 billion individual pellets. Partow said the disaster is the single-largest release of nurdles into the ocean ever reported.
The plastic has flooded onto beaches around Colombo. One, Sarukkuwa, was blanketed in meter-deep piles of plastic. The nurdles also turned up in the gills and guts of fish. Local fishers, who have been barred from the rich fishing grounds around Colombo, have blamed the nurdles for killing sea life, though that claim is still being investigated by Sri Lanka scientists. Withanage said pellets have also been found in a turtle sanctuary 300km north of Colombo.
Over time the pellets, which will take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate, may build up in the food chain, sickening fish and potentially humans, Withanage said. “When it comes to the environment, every plastic nurdle is a disaster.”
Making matters worse, many of the pellets were charred, causing them to crumble into a potentially toxic powder when disturbed.
“These weren’t just virgin pellets,” said Partow. “Around half were combusted, so the jury is out about their toxicity.”
In the immediate aftermath of the X-Press Pearl sinking, hundreds of Sri Lankan navy, air force and coast guard members were deployed in a massive clean-up operation overseen by the Marine Environment Protection Authority. Working around the clock under strict COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, they have so far collected more than 53,000 bags of pellets, burnt plastic and other debris mixed with sand. The small size of the plastic pellets means that many had to be hand sieved.
There is no way, though, to clean plastic pellets still in the ocean.
“What is in the sea could be there for a long time,” said Thummarukudyil.
A toxic brew
It also appears likely that at least some of the highly corrosive nitric acid aboard the X-Press Pearl seeped into the ocean. Experts are worried it may have scalded sea life at a nearby coral reef. Sri Lanka’s government has recovered turtle carcases that show signs of burns, though Partow said scientists are still examining the animals and that it was too early to determine what had killed them.
While the nitric acid has likely dissipated into the ocean, concerns have now turned to another toxic chemical carried by the X-Press Pearl: epoxy resin. Around 9,800 metric tonnes of epoxy was aboard and experts worry that if it was in toxic liquid form—as opposed to solid form—that it could spread along the Sri Lankan coast.
The ship also contained a witches’ brew of other chemicals, including methanol, gear oil, brake fluid and urea, along with lead, copper and lithium batteries, according to Withanage.
The question of oil
Exactly how much toxic material remains in the ship’s hold or in containers on the ocean floor remains unknown. Sri Lanka’s annual monsoon, coupled with a country-wide COVID-19 lockdown, has hampered salvage efforts.
The ship’s owner, X-Press Feeders, said much of the cargo could have been incinerated in the fire, including the black, molasses-like fuel that powered the X-Press Pearl. But the UN team thinks that even if the oil was burnt it is unlikely to have evaporated. Instead, it would probably be transformed into a more viscous mixture.
“We should assume the oil is still there,” said Thummarukudyil. The ship, he added, was carrying enough oil to blanket Sri Lanka’s entire western coast. “The potential is there for this to be a lot worse than what we’ve already seen.”
The UNEP staff working on the X-Press Pearl sinking are part of a disaster response unit jointly run by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The unit has helped broker an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the X-Press Pearl’s owner to contain a potential offshore oil spill as well as clean-up the shoreline. Specialized equipment, including inflatable booms designed to trap oil, arrived in Colombo on 2 July.
“The United Nations is supporting the Government of Sri Lanka to address the disaster of the MV X-Press Pearl,” said UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. “We are coordinating international efforts and mobilizing partners to ensure a cohesive and coherent response to the crisis (and) ensure prevention of such disasters in the future.”
UNEP has called for the ship’s owner and insurer to hash out what Partow called a “peer-reviewed, government-approved” road map for removing the X-Press Pearl and the stray containers on the ocean floor, saying they constitute the most immediate risk of pollution.
“This plan needs to be developed now so that when the conditions allow, the ship can be removed and properly decommissioned,” said Partow.
Sri Lanka’s government is also pushing the ship’s owners and insurers to refloat the X-Press Pearl.
“The Sri Lankan government is deeply concerned about its environment and the livelihood of the vulnerable fishing communities,” said Dharshani Lahandapura, Chairperson of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority. “The foremost thing that the owners and salvors, caretakers and wreck removers have to do is remove the wreckage, underwater containers and debris as soon as possible.”
For Withanage, time is of the essence. “It is a business for them,” he said of the salvage company hired to raise the ship and the vessel’s owners. “But it is our environment. As long as the ship is there contamination is there.”
UNEP will deliver a final report on the disaster to Sri Lanka’s government next week. It will contain recommendations for the clean-up and suggestions for how Sri Lanka, a country vying to become a major shipping hub, can handle future maritime disasters. Partow said UNEP will also stand by to advise Sri Lanka on longer-term environmental monitoring.
Today, the ship sits largely submerged in 21 metres of water, its castle and a few charred cranes poking up over the waves. A caretaker ship circles it 24 hours a day, keeping tabs on the oil leak.
Partow, who toured the wreck by boat and in a helicopter, saw plastic pellets mixed with oil bobbing in the waves around the vessel. Brown patches of oil surrounded by a grey sheen stretched two to three kilometres out into the sea.
He described the 186-metre-long ship, which entered service in February, as a “write off.”
Thummarukudyil has spent 18 years responding to oil spills around the world. When asked if the X-Press Pearl was the worst maritime ecological disaster he’d seen, he paused.
“There are lots of chemicals still sitting there,” he said. “This story is not yet over.”