Environmental disaster feared as ship sinks off Sri Lanka

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This photo provided by Sri Lankan Air Force shows the sinking MV X-Press Pearl at Kapungoda where it is anchored off Colombo port, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. Salvage experts were attempting to tow the fire-stricken container ship that had been loaded with chemicals into the deep sea as the vessel started to sink Wednesday. Water submerged the MV X-Press Pearl's quarterdeck a day after firefighters extinguished a blaze that had been burning for 12 days. (Sri Lanka Air Force via AP)

COLOMBO – Salvage experts failed to tow a fire-stricken container ship carrying chemicals out to sea and it started to sink Wednesday off Sri Lanka's main port, raising fears of a marine environmental disaster, officials said.

X-Press Feeders, operators of the container ship MV X-Press Pearl, said the experts were able to board the vessel and attach a tow line, but “efforts to move the ship to deeper waters have failed.”

“The ship's aft portion is now touching bottom at a depth of 21 meters (70 feet),” while the forward area remains afloat with smoke coming out of two cargo holds, the company said in a statement.

Navy spokesperson Indika de Silva said the ship could cause severe pollution if it sinks at its current location off the port of Colombo.

The fire erupted on May 20 when the ship was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometers) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.

The navy believes the blaze was caused by the chemicals being transported on the Singapore-flagged vessel. It was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals that were loaded at the port of Hazira, India, on May 15.

The blaze has destroyed most of the ship’s cargo. Some containers tumbled into the sea, polluting surrounding waters and a long stretch of the island nation’s famed beaches.

There are fears that hundreds of tons of oil from the vessel's fuel tanks could also leak into the sea if it sinks, devastating nearby marine life.