Dead Animals Wash Ashore in Sri Lanka After Ship Spills Chemicals

At least four whales, 20 dolphins and 176 turtles are among the dead as the nation grapples with its worst environmental disaster.,

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Hundreds of dead sea creatures, including whales and dolphins, have washed ashore in Sri Lanka, apparently poisoned by chemicals from a cargo ship that caught fire and sank, government officials said on Wednesday, revealing some of the toll of what is being called the country’s worst environmental disaster.

The remains of four whales, 20 dolphins and 176 turtles have been found since the ship carrying the toxic material, the MV X-Press Pearl, caught fire in late May and sank in early June, Deputy Solicitor General Madhawa Tennakoon told a court in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.

“It is very obvious that the deaths of these sea animals are connected to the ship,” said Dharshani Lahandapura, the chairperson of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority. “Last year, during the same time period only two turtle deaths were reported.”

The damage could actually be far worse, according to an official at the country’s Wildlife Conservation Department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to the media. In addition to the dead animals reported to the court, the official said, the carcasses of a shark and two more turtles were found on Wednesday.

The MV X-Press Pearl, carrying 1,486 containers, reported a fire onboard on May 20 as it approached the Colombo harbor. Sri Lanka’s Navy and Air Force, together with the Indian Coast Guard, tried to douse the fire.

The ship’s operator, X-Press Feeders, based in Singapore, has said that one of those containers had been leaking nitric acid well before the ship entered Sri Lankan waters. The company said the ship had asked to offload the leaking container at two previous stops, in India and Qatar, but had been denied.

The ship began sinking in shallow water near Colombo on June 2, coming to rest on the bottom with part of its structure protruding above water, as experts voiced concerned about the lasting damage the chemicals could do to marine life.

ImageIn this photograph made available by Sri Lanka's Air Force, the MV X-Press Pearl vessel is seen sinking off the port of Colombo in early June.
In this photograph made available by Sri Lanka’s Air Force, the MV X-Press Pearl vessel is seen sinking off the port of Colombo in early June.Credit…Sri Lanka’s Air Force, via Reuters

The containers held chemicals such as caustic soda, nitric acid, methanol and plastic pellets, and the ship also carried about 350 tons of oil. The Colombo-based Center for Environmental Justice has estimated that the ship spilled as many as 70 billion tiny bits of plastic known as nurdles, which can fatally clog the digestive systems of animals that eat them.

Following the fire, Sri Lanka’s pristine beaches, mostly in Western Province, were covered by debris and plastic pellets. The ship’s operator, however, has said it has not seen any signs of an oil spill.

“To date we have collected over 1,500 tons of debris that consisted mostly of plastic pellets,” said Captain Indika De Silva, a spokesman for Sri Lanka’s Navy.

The government has banned fishing on part of the coast.

An expert panel in Sri Lanka was finishing a damage assessment report. Kanchana Wijesekera, Sri Lanka’s state minister for fisheries, said that the ship’s operator was making a payment of $3.6 million to affected fishermen as part of the initial damage claim of $40 million made by the government for losses through June 3.

“Discussions are underway to provide an initial payment of funds to help compensate those affected by the consequences of the fire and resulting pollution and help cover cleanup costs,” X-Press Feeders said in a statement.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi, India.

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