The fire that led to plastic snow, and Sri Lanka’s worst marine ecological disaster3 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
A fire rendered the yellow-sanded beaches of Sri Lanka, a dismal grey.
On May 20, 2021, Singapore-flagged cargo ship, MV X-Press Pearl, caught fire on Colombo’s Coast. The ship was carrying chemicals and raw materials for cosmetics from Hazira in Gujarat to Colombo Port.
It caught fire some 9.5 nautical miles away from the port of Colombo (1 nautical mile is equal to 1.852 kilometers). Alongside the 325 metric tonnes of fuel in its tanks, the ship was also carrying 1,486 containers with about 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid (the chemical used in fertilizers and explosives), and 78 metric tons of plastic pellets (used to make plastic bags).
The crew first detected the fire of May 20. They tried to douse it using carbon dioxide. But the fire grew, and an explosion was heard from the vessel on May 22. The cause of the fire could be a slippage from one of the containers aboard the ship.
Authorities feel that this is the worst marine disaster Sri Lanka has ever witnessed as tons of plastic debris can be seen covering its western coastline, including the popular tourist resorts of Negombo and Kalutara.
Fishing activities have been suspended and fishermen will be given support by the Government. India sent reinforcements to help douse the fire. No oil spillage has been reported so far but there have been sightings of dead sea turtles, birds and small fish. An onlooker described this debris as snow, or tiny while pellets covering the whole beach. People have been advised against touching the debris as it could be loaded in harmful chemicals.
The ship was aflame for a week before the military could successfully subdue the blaze. All 25 members of the crew have been rescued. But scientists believe that the disaster is far from being averted. Plastic debris, described as snow or pellets, has been washing ashore upto 75 miles to the south.
The nationwide lockdown has made the process of clean-up slower as no volunteers can be mobilised quickly. While officials are cleaning up the beaches, scientists are trying to determine the extend of damage this floating debris can cause. Some fear that the currents of the ocean could carry the debris to the other side of the island nation damaging the ecosystem, there. Scientists estimate that it will take up a long time to investigate the full impact of the disaster but they are certain that it will have a lasting influence of the country’s marine health.
Scientists also believe that this might make us more aware of the microplastics floating in our oceans and washing ashore on a regular basis.