Sri Lanka’s Disastrous Maritime Chemical Conundrum

Off the coast of Sri Lanka on May 20th, a distress call was put out by the ship known as “X-Press Pearl” for a fire that was spotted onboard. The ship came from Hazira, India, and was heading towards Colombo, Sri Lanka. Onboard were 1486 containers that included multiple hazardous chemicals such as nitric acid, which is corrosive. After the navy contained the fire, all crew members were evacuated, and the ship was abandoned to sit in the ocean. The boat is currently sinking and might leak tons of oil, industrial chemicals, and other materials such as plastics into the surrounding ocean environment. The area that the boat sits in is a rich fishing area that contributes to Sri Lanka’s GDP(gross domestic product).

The ship has already leaked tons of plastic pellets onto the beachline of the Sri Lankan coast and could start leaking oil from the ship in the coming days. Pamunugama beach has been covered in plastic pellets, and members of the Sri Lankan military have spent hours taking away sacks full of plastic nuisances. More pellets wash up with the tide, so the cleanup must be continuous to save the beach from being completely unusable. The pellets have already impacted the ecosystem.  A significant amount of local wildlife has most likely ingested the plastic pellets in some capacity. Toxic chemicals could end up inside the pellets, so authorities are not sure if they are safe to touch.

Bags of plastic pellets piled on the beach after hours of cleanup(source: npr.org)

The issue with plastic pellets(also known as nurdles) is that they can chronically impact an ecosystem for decades. Fish that consume nurdles can pass the pollution up the food chain and fill predators with large amounts of plastic waste. Nurdles can also kill animals by getting stuck in their gills or blocking their internal systems by accident. Countries surrounding this disaster will eventually get drifts of the nurdles released from this incident in around 40 days. These plastics will remain in the marine ecosystems for decades and lead to countless dead or polluted organisms. Scientists still are not fully aware of what exactly nurdles can do to animals over long periods of time.

The other chemicals on the ship are another major issue. Oil reserves sitting in the sinking boat could poison the waters around the ship and create a massive no-fishing zone. Other chemicals like nitric acid can irritate or damage organisms or people if it becomes infused in the water. Chemical drift from the site of the ship will most likely extend the effects of the spill to cover a massive area around the west Sri Lankan coastline. BP’s “Deepwater Horizon” oil spill from 2010 has shown the pure devastation that oil spills alone can impose on environments and economies. Economies based on the Gulf of Mexico were extremely limited in tourism and fishing areas for a significant period of time.

Sri Lanka relies on fishing and tourism more than other nations because they are an island. Losing the fishing areas could mean thousands of Sri Lankans have no livelihood until the spill is completely cleaned up. Beaches that are hit hardest by the plastic pellet invasion will lose local economies hundreds of thousands in lost revenue. The timing of this incident is terrible due to the current rise in “eco-tourism” and the large groups of quarantined people that will want to travel soon. Losing the chance to host the upcoming travel boom is a colossal issue, given that Sri Lanka’s economy needs a boost after three waves of covid-19.

It could take Sri Lanka a decade to fully recover from the amount of pollution released during the sinking of the “X-Press Pearl.” Sri Lanka will most likely seek compensation from the owners of the leaking ship in order to recuperate some losses to pay for the cleanup. The money recovered from the ship’s owner will likely be less than a hundredth of the total cleanup cost. 

Sri Lanka’s environmental destruction is more relevant for many countries now because of the aforementioned “eco-tourism” boom in recent years. Natural wonders like Yosemite national park in the United States are attracting more tourists than ever in recent years, especially with the pandemic. Protecting nature is now imperative if countries want to foster increasing tourism industry revenues. “Eco-tourism” directly benefits the local communities without disturbing the environment. Many local communities and smaller villages across places like East Asia need economic benefits at the moment to help fight the financial woes of the current wave of the covid-19 pandemic.

Sri Lanka will have a long road ahead in the coming months if they want to recover enough from this incident in time to fully benefit from the next big summer tourism seasons of 2022 and 2023.


Sources: https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/photos-container-fire-on-vessel-off-sri-lanka, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/05/1003445739/the-ship-sinking-off-sri-lanka-looks-like-a-lasting-environmental-disaster, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/cargo-ship-sinks-sri-lanka-after-weeks-fire-sparking-fears-n1269302, https://phys.org/news/2021-06-sri-lanka-recovers-black-ship.html, https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:6450863/mmsi:563118200/imo:9875343/vessel:X_PRESS_PEARL

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