As the chemical cargo ship sank in Sri Lankan waters, locals worried about the worst | Environmental News

Colombo, Sri Lanka – For more than a week, daily life on Pamunogama Beach in the western province of Sri Lanka, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the capital Colombo, has not changed.

On May 20, after a fire broke out on a chemical cargo ship, Sri Lankan naval officers arrived in protective clothing and began to collect fish-eye-like plastic particles, which washed ashore.

After the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl sank on the west coast of the island nation, the authorities are now preparing to deal with the possibility of an oil spill, the worst man-made environmental disaster in history.

On the order of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Gotabaya Rajapaksa), the rescue team tried to tow the ship out of Sri Lankan waters.

But after the ship started sinking on Wednesday afternoon, the crew gave up the task. On Thursday, part of this ship can be seen on the water.

This cargo ship carries 1,486 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid and other hazardous chemicals.

Hazardous waste on the beach

By Wednesday afternoon, naval officers collected hundreds of bags full of toxic waste from multiple locations along the beach and took them away.

Kasun Milinda was severely affected by the decline in fish sales and worried that the oil spill might make the situation worse [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

There is a short stretch of beach in front of the 44-year-old Anton Chandana’s house.

“In the beginning, there was a huge pile of these little beads. The pile was even taller than me,” Chandana told Al Jazeera as he stood on the beach and watched the smoke rising from the boat on Wednesday morning.

At the same time, plastic particles continue to wash up on the beach endlessly. Chandana said that no matter how much was collected and taken away, the beach was again covered in white.

The Marine Environmental Protection Agency of Sri Lanka (MEPA) and the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) are analyzing the impact of the shipwreck on the island.

When contacted by Al Jazeera, an expert who studied the incident stated that “it is too early to draw conclusions.”

But experts such as Dr. Kamal Ranatunga, a marine ecologist, said that this impact may be multifaceted.

“This ship contains hazardous chemicals. Their impact may be significant, but it is also short-term. In most cases, the fish eggs in this area may have died,” he told Al Jazeera.

Fear of oil spills

But Rana Tonga said he was worried about a possible oil spill. He said that if this happens, the impact could be long-term and “very lasting.”

“We must do our best to recover from the oil spill,” he warned.

Peliyagoda fish market where COVID-19 broke out last year [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

The Sri Lankan Navy and other national agencies, as well as the coast guard of neighboring India, are anticipating this disaster and are taking necessary precautions, including the use of offshore oil booms.

The Navy has deployed a nine-man diving team to study the shipwreck.

At a press conference on Thursday, Captain Nirmal Silva, the head of the port, said that the authorities believed that most of the oil on board had been burned out.

He said that the National Oil Spill Emergency Plan (NOSCOP) and MEPA and other agencies have been on standby in case of an oil spill.

“Now 36 hours have passed since the ship sank. So far, we have not seen an oil spill,” Silva said.

Rana Tonga said the disaster will affect the livelihoods of communities living in the area that depend on marine resources, especially fishermen.

Residents worried about chemical pollution have reduced fish consumption.

According to Douglas Devananda, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, there are approximately 12,000 fishermen and 3,993 people in the area dependent on the fishery trade.

“We have banned fishing in the area. We plan to study this issue for another 10 days before deciding to end or continue the ban,” he said. The government has decided to provide 5,000 Sri Lankan rupees (68 US dollars) in subsidies to members of the affected communities.

“I don’t want to make it worse”

For fishermen such as 36-year-old WKS Tharanga from Ouattara, Western Province, this tragedy is a double whammy.

Tharanga is sitting at his fish stand in Peliyagoda [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

Last year, after the outbreak of COVID-19 at the fish market in Peliagorda, one of the country’s main fishing grounds, fish sales across the island declined.

Tharanga is the father of two children and used to sell fish at the Peliyagoda market. He said he is still struggling with the low demand for fish.

“I come here to sell fish at 2 am every day. We even lowered the price, but there are no buyers. If this situation continues, it will be difficult for us to support our family,” he said.

The 23-year-old Kasun Milinda, another fisherman in the area, has the same story.

“My entire family is dependent on my fishing income. But we are not allowed to go fishing these days. If this situation continues, I don’t know what will happen to us.”

Milinda said that he hopes that the ship will not have an oil spill because it will “make consumers more afraid.”

Most residents near the coast also worry that they might get sick from the smoke from burning ships.

“Sometimes when it rains, I can smell plastic burning. It’s very scary,” Kumari Disanayak, 50, the mother of two children from Pamunugama, told Al Jazeera. She said that she hadn’t bought fish for several days.

“The situation is bad. Plastic is polluting this beach. We don’t want the situation to get worse,” Dissanayake said.

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