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Fire-ravaged cargo ship sinks off Sri Lanka sparking fears of environmental disaster

"The sea is very violent. In the rough season, we can't do anything," said the head of Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority.
Image: The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, which caught fire and later sank, is seen mid-sea off the Colombo Harbour in Sri Lanka
The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl was carrying 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals. Planet Labs Inc / Reuters

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A container ship carrying chemicals sank off Sri Lanka's capital on Thursday nearly a month after catching fire, raising concerns about a possible environmental disaster, officials said.

The ship's operator said the wreck of the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl "is now wholly sitting on the seabed at a depth of 70 feet."

A salvage crew was at the site to deal with any debris and report any spill, X-Press Feeders said.

The head of Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority, Darshini Lahandapura, also confirmed that the ship had sunk. She said it was currently unsafe to remove the wreck because of rough monsoon seas.

"The sea is very violent. In the rough season, we can't do anything," she said.

The monsoon season started last month and usually ends in September.

"Until such time, the owner of the vessel has appointed a caretaker company," Lahandapura said. "The entire area will be looked after by the caretaker company until the owner appoints a wreck removal company."

The fire broke out on the vessel on May 20 when it was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.

The Sri Lankan navy believes the blaze was caused by its chemical cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals, most of which were destroyed in the fire.

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But debris including burned fiberglass and tons of plastic pellets have already polluted nearby beaches. There are concerns that a spill of remaining chemicals and oil from the ship could devastate marine life.

Authorities extinguished the fire last week, but the ship then began sinking and attempts to tow it into deeper waters failed when its stern rested on the seabed. The ship had remained partly submerged until Thursday.

The government has asked the United Nations and some other countries for help in assessing the damage to the marine environment and coastal areas.

The country has submitted an interim claim of $40 million to X-Press Feeders to cover part of the cost of fighting the fire.