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With fire contained, Sri Lanka faces plastic pellet problem from stricken ship

epa09228663 A handout photo made available by the Sri Lankan Air Force Media showing the Singapore-registered container vessel MV X-Press Pearl on fire in the 9 nautical miles northwest of Colombo port in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 26 May 2021. A fire broke out on the container vessel anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18km) northwest of Colombo awaiting entry into the port. The Sri Lanka Navy said the explosion was caused by chemicals being transported on the ship carrying over 1,000 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid and other chemicals from the port of Hazira, India. The 25-member crew were evacuated by the Navy on 25 May, while two injured members were hospitalized and one was tested positive for Covid-19. EPA-EFE/SRI LANKAN AIR FORCE MEDIA HANDOUT HANDOUT HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

  • Sri Lanka faces an uphill task to clean up countless plastic pellets that have washed up on its beaches from a cargo ship that caught fire off the island’s west coast.
  • The fire, linked to the X-Press Pearl’s cargo of nitric acid, was brought largely under control by May 30 after it broke out on May 21, authorities say.
  • The plastic pellets, or nurdles, that fell overboard during the incident have spread with the ocean current down to southern Sri Lanka, carpeting beaches along the coast and posing a threat to marine life and humans.
  • Experts say the cleanup operation will be long and difficult, given the scale of the problem and the fact that Sri Lanka is under a COVID-19 lockdown that limits the mass mobilization needed to mount a cleanup effort.

COLOMBO — Authorities in Sri Lanka say they have largely contained a fire on board a cargo ship off the island’s west coast, but now face the task of cleaning up the tons of plastic granules it was carrying that have washed up along a wide swath of the coast.

Compounding the scale of the environmental hazard is the possibility that the pellets, known as nurdles, are contaminated with chemicals from the ship, the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl.

The ship, newly commissioned in March this year, caught fire on May 21 shortly after leaving western India bound for Singapore. The fire broke out as it was anchored off Colombo, awaiting permission to unload Sri Lanka-bound cargo, but was brought under significant control by May 30 with help from India, authorities said.

Darshani Lahandapura, chair of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), told Mongabay that while it was too soon to pin down the cause of the fire, “we believe it was due to a chemical reaction due to leakage of nitric acid.” The ship was carrying 25 metric tons of nitric acid (HNO3), generally used in manufacturing fertilizers as well as explosives. The ship was also carrying three containers of plastic pellets, each weighing 26 metric tons; some of the 25-kilogram (55-pound) bags from the containers fell overboard, and the beads have now carpeted beaches all the way down to the south coast of Sri Lanka.

A container that fell overboard from the X-Press Pearl after it caught fire off Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of the Sri Lanka National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

“We swiftly mobilized our staff and together with military personnel to start removing nurdles from long expanses of our western coast,” Lahandapura told Mongabay. “Particular instructions were given to prevent pellets from getting washed back to the sea as that could make cleaning operations much harder.” She added that the recovered nurdles would be dumped in the MEPA’s hazardous waste yard until they are analyzed and the legal process is concluded, after which the nurdles will be destroyed.

Authorities have also warned people not to touch the plastic pellets, which may be contaminated with chemicals as beaches are awash with black-coated tiny plastic pellets.

Plastic pellets being collected from beaches are to be transported to a hazardous waste yard. Image courtesy of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA).

Nurdle hazard

Nurdles are the raw material used in creating other plastic items. They’re also a chief source of the microplastic pollution in the oceans. Due to their small, round shape, they’re often mistaken for food by marine species, which either die from ingesting the pellets, or pass the plastic up the food chain. Nurdles can also absorb other chemicals over time, and once swallowed, can contaminate the food chain with high concentrations of these chemicals. In Sri Lanka, where fish is the main source of protein, this problem poses an immediate health concern for humans.

The MEPA has set up an expert committee comprising officials from various government agencies and experts to assess the damage. Authorities have already banned fishing in affected areas, and while no mass deaths of marine species have been recorded so far, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) has taken samples of dead fish and turtles found along the western coast for study.

The collection and cleanup of the grain-sized pellets will prove a serious challenge, said Muditha Katuwawala, coordinator of the Pearl Protectors, a local NGO focusing on Sri Lanka’s marine environment.

A similar spill of nurdles in Hong Kong required 7,000 volunteers to collect the plastic pellets from local beaches. Sri Lanka faces the extra challenge of a strict lockdown imposed in response to rising COVID-19 infections, which would limit mass mobilizations. Image courtesy of Oceans Asia.

The group regularly sends out volunteers to clean beaches and address environmental impacts caused by oil spills and other pollutants. But it hasn’t been able to mobilize a similar response to the X-Press Pearl nurdle spill because of a strict nationwide lockdown in effect across Sri Lanka to deal with the latest wave of COVID-19 infections.

“We foresee that the cleaning process will be a lengthy operation, so we started creating tools that can assist the cleaning operations and to create awareness around beach pollution of such magnitude,” Katuwawala told Mongabay.

Experts have called for more durable containers to be used to transport plastic pellets, but manufacturers continue to ship them in easily tearable poly bags like these ones, on a beach in western Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

‘Sad and frustrating’

With the onset of the southwestern monsoons, the western seas off Sri Lanka are rough at the moment, which means the nurdles can quickly be distributed across a much larger area, said Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia who studies wave patterns around Sri Lanka. The currents are shifting south, which means more accumulation of debris toward Colombo and other areas along the southern coastline can be expected, Pattiaratchi told Mongabay.

A similar accident in 2012 in Hong Kong resulted in container-loads of plastic pellets washing out to sea. Analyzing the 2012 images, Gary Stokes, director of operations at Oceans Asia, says the Sri Lankan situation is similar to the Hong Kong incident.

“It took about 7000 volunteers to clean up Hong Kong beaches, but our pellets were not contaminated with chemicals and there were no COVID-19 restricting gathering of the people,” Stokes told Mongabay, adding that the situation would be more challenging in Sri Lanka.

After the Hong Kong spill, Oceans Asia lobbied for the introduction of more robust material to pack the plastic pellets, as the 25-kilo poly sacks currently used are easily torn, even in minor incidents. Stokes said metal containers would be more durable and able to withstand a fire.

“It is both sad and frustrating that the manufacturing companies haven’t heeded this warning, creating the space for similar disasters to happen,” Stokes said.

Authorities have also warned people not to touch the plastic pellets, which may be contaminated with chemicals as beaches are awash with black-coated tiny plastic pellets. Image courtesy of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA).

Increase in maritime accidents

Sri Lanka sits along a busy international shipping lane, which makes it critically important that the country is prepared for contingencies like the X-Press Pearl fire, said Dan Malika Gunasekera, a maritime lawyer and scholar with the International Max Planck Research School for Maritime Affairs. He said the country has an obligation to provide assistance to any ship in distress, so it’s important that Sri Lanka strengthens the Indian Ocean Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control to ensure quicker actions.

In a recent report of maritime incidents in Sri Lankan waters since 1994, the Pearl Protectors identified 20 major incidents. More than half of them occurred in the last five years, indicating an increase in maritime activities around the island. Of the 20 major incidents, 12 involved an oil spill of some sort, underscoring Sri Lanka’s vulnerability to extensive marine pollution.

In September last year, the MV New Diamond, carrying 270,000 tons of crude oil, caught fire off eastern Sri Lanka. A joint fire-fighting operation by the Sri Lankan and Indian navies managed to put out the fire and limit the scale of the disaster. Sri Lanka lodged a claim of $2.3 million in damages, which the ship’s owner paid in full.

Banner image of military and Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) personnel collecting plastic nurdles along Sri Lanka’s western coast. Image courtesy of the Sri Lanka Air Force Media.