Environmental Disaster in Sri Lanka: Ship burns, sinks, spilling oil and plastics

This event would be a leading news story around the world if it had happened in the US or Europe: a cargo ship carrying a veritable witches’ brew of toxic chemicals catches fire and eventually sinks, dumping fuel oil and cargo onto some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, endangering human livelihoods and sealife together, It appears that the ship caught fire on 19 May, and finally sank yesterday.

From the Guardian:

Plastic pellets have also poured out from the ship’s containers, washing up on the beaches. The navy has been called out to clean the burnt wreckage and debris.

But other effects cannot be easily cleaned – or even seen. The ship was carrying a whole array of hazardous chemicals: nitric acid, used for explosives; epoxy resins, used for paints and primers; and ethanol and lead ingots, used for manufacturing vehicle batteries.

There were other products, too: caustic soda, lubricating oils, aluminium byproducts, polyethene used for grocery bags and packaging, cosmetics and even food items, according to Hemantha Withanage, an environmental scientist and executive director of the Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka.

One container, Withanage noted, is named Environmentally Harmful Substances. “What are these substances? We don’t know. Authorities haven’t told us yet,” he said. “But why are they keeping this information a secret?”

The sinking of the ship means the probable leaching of these chemicals into the ocean. “And that’s a serious risk to our ecosystem,” he said, explaining that it could lead to death and contamination of the corals, fish, turtles and other marine life that abound off the country’s coasts.

Sri Lankan navy personnel wearing cleanup gear on a beach with yellow sacks full of debris
Sri Lanka navy personnel clear Negombo beach, north-west of Colombo. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

Pray for our friends in Sri Lanka, and all those affected by, and working desperately to clean up this mess.

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