Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

cargo ship sinks

The fire-stricken Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl is seen sinking while being towed away from the coast of Colombo on June 2, 2021 following Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's order to move the ship to deeper water. (Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images)

Fire-Stricken Chemical Cargo Ship Sinks Off Sri Lankan Coast in Enormous 'Man-Made Disaster'

The sinking of a container ship carrying tons of chemicals comes after authorities spent weeks putting out a fire that erupted on the vessel and caused widespread damage to the island nation's marine environment.

Kenny Stancil

A container ship carrying tons of hazardous chemicals sank off the Sri Lankan coast on Wednesday—the latest development in an ongoing marine disaster that began two weeks ago when an explosion aboard the vessel sparked a blaze that destroyed cargo, polluting the country's fishing waters and littering its beaches with plastic pellets.

As the ship began to sink early on Wednesday, "a salvage crew tried to tow the vessel to deeper water away from the coast," Reuters reported, "but the attempt was abandoned after several hours."

The towing of the fire-stricken ship "was stopped due to the rear end of the vessel hitting the sea bed," Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Captain Indika de Silva told the news outlet.

The Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl was "carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid along with other chemicals and cosmetics," according to Reuters. On May 20, the seacraft, which departed from the Port of Hazira in India on May 15, "was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo, waiting to enter the port" off Sri Lanka's west coast, Al Jazeera reported.

That's when an explosion onboard the ship engulfed the vessel in flames. Reuters reported that "containers laden with chemicals tumbled into the sea from the ship's deck as emergency crews sought to contain the blaze over the ensuing two weeks."

While the seacraft's 25-member crew was evacuated last week, it took firefighters until Tuesday to extinguish the fire.

As a result of the blaze, Al Jazeera noted, "tons of plastic pellets have swamped the island's coastline and rich fishing grounds, creating one of the biggest environmental crises in decades."

"Walking along some of these beaches in this vast stretch that has been affected, all you see is a blanket of white and black—they are the microplastic pellets mixed with a whole load of burnt, charred remains and debris material for dozens of kilometers as far as the eye can see," Al Jazeera's Minelle Fernandez said Tuesday.

Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority chairman Dharshani Lahandapura described the situation as a "man-made disaster."

"This is an unfortunate incident for Sri Lanka," he told Al Jazeera. "It has negatively impacted the country in many ways. What we are doing right now is minimizing the negative impact."

According to Lahandapura, most chemicals on the ship—which the navy blames for the explosion and ensuing fire—were "highly reactive" and emitted through fumes and gases. "Some even dissolved in seawater," he added.

More destruction could be on the horizon. As de Silva of the Sri Lankan Navy told Al Jazeera, "Now our concern is about any oil spill."

"We are closely monitoring this and so far we have not detected any spill," he said. "It will be devastating if that happens, but we are taking all precautions."

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's government on Wednesday "suspended fishing along a 50-mile stretch of the island's coastline, affecting 5,600 fishing boats, and hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to clean affected beaches," Reuters noted.

"The ship has dealt a death blow to our lives," Joshua Anthony, head of a regional fishing union, told the news outlet. "We can't go into the sea which means we can't make a living."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Sanders, Top Dems Optimistic Party Will 'Come Together' for Reconciliation Package

However, House leaders warn they may miss a September 27 deadline to consider Senate-approved infrastructure legislation that progressives will only support alongside a $3.5 trillion bill.

Jessica Corbett ·


Report on Revolving Door and Tax Policy Sparks Calls for Federal Probe and Reforms

"This is an example of terrible management in the Treasury Department across multiple administrations."

Jessica Corbett ·


Nabisco Strike Ends After Union Members Approve New Contract

"Congratulations to these brave workers on their wins," said one labor writer. "May their determination and grit be an inspiration for workers everywhere."

Jessica Corbett ·


'I Had a Duty of Care': Doctor Praised for Violating Texas' New Abortion Ban

"I hope the law gets overturned," Dr. Alan Braid said, "and if this is what does it, that would be great."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Infuriating Disappointment': Biden DHS Ramping Up Deportations to Haiti

"It is unconscionable for the Biden administration to resume deportation flights to Haiti, despite the country's ongoing political, economic, and environmental disasters."

Jessica Corbett ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo