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Singapore Port Authority Begins Probe into Fire on Cargo Vessel That Sank in Sri Lankan Waters

Logo of MPA of Singapore Port Operations Control.

Logo of MPA of Singapore Port Operations Control.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore said it also understands that the Sri Lankan authorities are investigating the cause of the incident with the ship operator.

Singapore on Thursday started its own investigation into the massive fire on a chemical-laden cargo vessel, sailing under the country’s flag, that sank in Sri Lankan waters and posed a grave threat to the environment and marine life. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) in a press statement said it also understands that the Sri Lankan authorities are investigating the cause of the incident with the ship operator.

”As the flag State, MPA has also commenced its own investigation on the incident,” the port authority said on Thursday. The container ship MV X-Press Pearl, carrying a consignment of chemicals and raw materials for cosmetics from Hazira in Gujarat to Colombo Port, sank on Wednesday in Sri Lanka’s outer Colombo Harbour following an unsuccessful bid by salvors to tow the vessel to deeper seas.

The development has led to grave environmental concerns as the container ship still has several hundred tonnes of oil in its fuel tanks. The ship caught fire on May 20 in Sri Lankan waters outside the port of Colombo after departing from the Indian port of Hazira in Gujarat.

The ship was carrying 1,486 containers on board. All crew members were safely evacuated from the ship, MPA said.

MPA said it has been in constant communication with the Sri Lankan authorities, ship operator, and classification society on efforts to stabilise the ship, put out the fire, and put in place measures to reduce the extent of environmental impact. The port authority also earlier offered to provide assistance to the Sri Lankan authorities pertaining to this incident.

MPA directed the ship operator to cooperate fully with the Sri Lankan authorities, and to adhere to measures to minimise environmental impact. It also instructed the ship operator to carry on with their deployment of resources to clean up the sea as much as possible.

X-Press Pearl was registered as a Singapore flag in February 2021. Pursuant to the Merchant Shipping Act, MPA authorises recognised organisations to ensure the ship meets all applicable requirements, and the authority has a stringent criteria and oversight programme to do so.

Based on MPA’s records, X-Press Pearl’ had been delivered from the shipyard in February 2021 with the full set of applicable class and statutory certificates. The Sri Lankan Navy on Wednesday said that it is getting ready to deal with a possible oil spill after the vessel sank in the sea.

Captain Indika de Silva, the Sri Lankan Navy spokesman, on Wednesday said, ”it could be towed only for a few hundred meters when it hit the sea bed.” The ship’s stern had settled on the bottom while the bow was floating, he said. India on May 25 dispatched ICG Vaibhav, ICG Dornier and Tug Water Lilly to help the Sri Lankan Navy extinguish the fire. India’s specialised pollution response vessel Samudra Prahari reached there on May 29. India had named the rescue efforts Operation Sagar Araksha 2.

The resultant environment and marine ecological pollution is regarded as the worst the island had seen. The ship’s cargo, comprising chemicals and nitric acid, were termed hazardous to the marine ecology. Sri Lankan environmentalists have described it as one of the worst ecological disasters in the country’s history and have warned of a potential threat to marine life and the fishing industry.

Large quantities of plastic debris have already inundated beaches, and authorities now fear an even greater disaster if the 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of gas in the ship’s fuel tanks leak into the Indian Ocean. The entire western coastal line has become swamped with the waste from the vessel’s fire mostly plastic beads which are harmful to the marine ecology, experts have said.

The plastic pellets, or nurdles, are used to make other plastic products and are a big source of ocean plastic pollution. Due to their small size, the pellets can be mistaken for food to birds, fish and other marine wildlife. The coastal area is known for fishing, and mangroves around the Negombo Lagoon — a major tourist attraction and sensitive ecological spot.

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