At the start of last month, a cargo ship carrying chemicals caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka, leaving in its wake an environmental disaster that the island will likely have to live with for decades.
For days it burned off the coast of Sri Lanka, plumes of thick black smoke that could be seen for miles. But the X-Press Pearl has now gone silent, half sunk off the coast of Sri Lanka, its hull resting on the shallow ocean floor.
But although the flames have now been extinguished, the problems are only beginning.
On board the ship there are still towers of containers stacked on top of each other, many of which contain chemicals that are very dangerous for the environment – some of them have already leaked into the water, raising concerns that this poisons marine life.
Additionally, tons of tiny plastic pellets have already washed up on nearby local beaches. And then there are the hundreds of tons of engine fuel sealed in the sunken hull that could potentially leak into the sea as well.
Besides the environmental threats, there are also devastating consequences for local communities, fishermen who overnight lost their livelihoods and will likely suffer for years to come.
“We are small-scale fishermen and we go to sea every day. We can only earn something if we go to sea – otherwise our whole family will starve,” local fisherman Denish Rodrigo told the BBC.
Billions of plastic granules
One thing stands out when you look at the photos of the disaster: tiny round pieces of plastic that stretch almost as far as the eye can see.
These plastic granules, also called nurdles, are used to make almost all plastic products.
“There were some 46 different chemicals on this ship,” Hemantha Withanage, Sri Lankan environmental activist and founder of the Center for Environmental Justice in the capital Colombo, told the BBC.
“But what has been most visible so far is the tons of plastic pellets.”
Since the end of May, such pellets from the X-Press Pearl cargo have found their way to the beaches of Negombo when fish have already been washed with swollen bellies and pellets stuck in their gills.
Plastic can take between 500 and 1,000 years to decompose and is likely to be transported by ocean currents to shores all around Sri Lanka and even to beaches hundreds of kilometers from the wreck.
Yet while plastic may be the most visible impact so far, it isn’t the most dangerous.
“If these nurdles are found in the fish we eat, they are usually found in the digestive tract of the fish,” Britta Denise Hardesty of Australian agency CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere told the BBC. “But we don’t eat the whole fish unless maybe it’s anchovies or sardines.
“Pellets are often sensationalistic, but there is no strong evidence that humans are shown to have a detrimental impact from eating fish that may have eaten plastic.”
“Our whole family is going to starve”
But for Negombo fishermen, their concern is not just what’s inside the fish – but the possibility of not being able to catch any fish at all.
Fishing is now banned in the affected area, meaning many of them lost their income and livelihoods virtually overnight.
“The fish are raised in the coral reefs in the area and the authorities say that all of these breeding sites are destroyed because of the dangerous chemicals. There is no other option but to jump in the sea and die. “says Tiuline Fernando, who has been a fisherman for 35 years.
While the government awaits compensation and assurances from the Singapore-based shipowners, locals are not overly optimistic that much of this money will be used to help them.
However, the Fishermen’s Association told the BBC that they are in desperate need of help, both the fishermen and the community at large.
“It’s not just us,” explains Densil Fernando, the group’s president and himself a fisherman.
“There are other related industries that are affected by this as well. We buy nets, motors and boats, we need oil, there are people pulling the boats. other related jobs related to this fishing industry. “
The most lasting impact, likely to affect the country for decades, is that of chemical pollution.
Among the most dangerous elements on board the ship are nitric acid, sodium dioxide, copper and lead, says Withanage.
Once in the water, these chemicals enter the belly of local marine life.
Small fish can die quickly from poisoning, but larger fish are less likely to do so. Instead, by feeding on small fish, toxins will slowly build up in their bodies over time.
Mr Withange says fish, turtles and dolphins have washed up dead on the beaches in the past. Some of them had taken on a greenish color, suggesting contamination with metals and chemicals.
“So if in a few years you catch a tuna, it will still be contaminated – that bioaccumulation will be a big problem.”
This means that the region’s fish will be dangerous to humans – not just for now, but for years to come.
“People need to be educated about this,” Withange urges. “It’s a completely toxic ship now. Any garbage coming ashore is very toxic and people shouldn’t even touch it.”
The problem is by no means confined to the immediate area around the wreck on the west coast of Sri Lanka.
“Waste, toxins or plastics do not follow geographic boundaries,” Britta Denise Hardesty of CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere in Australia told the BBC.
“They will be carried by the wind, the waves, the currents and these things change with the seasons.”
Although there have been shipwrecks before, Sri Lanka has never faced such a toxic cargo – and the country is not well prepared for a difficult job like this.
Activists insist that international experts will be crucial.
The shipping company that owns the X-Press Pearl has already commissioned an international firm to respond to the crisis and says its specialists are on the ground in Sri Lanka.
But Mr Withanage doubts that a for-profit company is really doing everything it can to improve the situation. The sinking has become a high-profile insurance business and the idea of a big payout could very well outweigh the concern for marine life.
The Center for Environmental Justice has sued both the Sri Lankan government and the shipping company for the situation, but the group recognizes that the best outcome may simply be awareness.
So far, Mr Withanage’s greatest hope is that the disaster will at least be a valuable lesson in preventing another such disaster.