As a chemical cargo ship sinks near Sri Lanka, locals fear the worst. |: Environmental news

Colombo, Sri Lanka – For more than a week, the daily routine of Pamunugama Beach, West Sri Lanka, 20 km from Colombo, was the same.

Sri Lankan naval officers arrive in their hazmat suits and begin collecting plastic balls like fish eyes that came ashore after a May 20 fire on a chemical cargo ship.

Authorities are now preparing for the possibility of an oil spill after the sinking of the Singaporean registered MV X-Press Pearl off the west coast of the island nation, which is its worst man-made environmental disaster ever.

Rescue teams tried to pull the ship out of Sri Lankan waters following orders from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

But the crew refused after the mission when the ship began to sink in the afternoon on Wednesday. Parts of the ship were visible on the water on Thursday.

The cargo ship was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid and other hazardous chemicals.

Hazardous waste on the beaches

In the second half of the day on Wednesday, naval officers collected bags of toxic waste from many places along the beach and took them away.

Kasun Milinda affected by declining fish sales և fears oil spill could worsen situation [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

A small section of the beach is in front of the house of 44-year-old Anton Chandana.

“In the beginning, there were big piles of these little beads. The piles were even higher than I was, “Chandana told Al Jazeera as he stood on the beach watching the ship’s smoke on Wednesday morning.

At the same time, the plastic hail continues to wash away from the shore indefinitely. Chandana said that no matter how much they gather and take away, the beach is white again.

The Sri Lankan Marine Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA), the National Water Resources Development Agency (NARA), is analyzing the effects of a sea disaster on the island.

When Al aze azira contacted them, the case experts said that “it is too early to come to any conclusion.”

But experts such as marine ecologist Dr. Kamal Ranatunga say the effects can be varied.

“This ship was carrying dangerous chemicals. Their impact can be great, but short-lived. “Mostly fish eggs could die in this area,” he told Al Jazeera.

Fears of oil spill

But Ranatunga said he was concerned about a possible oil spill. If that happens, he said, the consequences could be long-term, “very persistent.”

“Every effort should be made to recover from the oil spill,” he warned.

Peliyagoda fish market, where COVID-19 outbreak occurred last year [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

In anticipation of the disaster, the Sri Lankan navy and other government agencies, along with the coast guard from neighboring India, are taking the necessary precautions, including the use of offshore oil booms.

The Navy has deployed a nine-member diving team to study the condition of the submarine.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the port’s captain, Captain Nirmal Silva, said authorities believed most of the oil on board had already been burned.

The National Oil Spill Prevention Plan (NOSCOP) was prepared with MEPA and other agencies in the event of an oil spill.

“It simply came to our notice then. “We have not seen an oil spill so far,” said Silva.

Ranatunga says the disaster will affect the livelihoods of communities in the area, which depend on marine resources, especially fishermen.

Residents have already reduced their use of fish for fear of chemical pollution.

According to Douglas Devananda, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Fisheries and Water Resources, some 12,000 fishermen and 3,993 more depend on the fishing industry in the area.

“We have banned fishing in this area. “We plan to study the issue for 10 days before making a decision to end or continue the ban,” he said. The government has decided to provide 5,000 rupees ($ 68) in benefits to members of the affected community.

“Do not want it to get worse”

The tragedy is a double shock for fishermen like WKS Tharanga, 36, from the western state of Vatala.

Tharanga sits at his fish stall in Peliagoda [Aanya Wipulasena/Al Jazeera]

Fish sales across the island fell last year after COVID-19 broke out at one of the country’s main fishing spots, the Peliagoda fish farm.

Taranga, a father of two, also used to sell fish at the Peliagoda market. He says he is still struggling with low demand for fish.

“I come here every day at 2 in the morning to sell my fish. We have even reduced the prices, but there are no buyers. “If this continues, it will be very difficult for us to feed our families,” he said.

Another fisherman, 23-year-old Kasun Milinda, has the same story.

“My whole family depends on the income from fishing. But these days we are not allowed to hunt. I do not know what will happen to us if this continues. “

Milinda says she hopes there will be no oil spills from the ship, as it “will scare consumers even more.”

Most people near the shore are also afraid that they may get sick from the fumes from the burning ship.

“Sometimes when it rains, I smell plastic burning. “It’s very scary,” Kumari Disanayake, 50, a mother of two from Pamunugama, told Al Jazeera. He says he has not bought any fish for days.

“It simply came to our notice then. Plastics pollute this beach. “We do not want it to be worse,” said Dysanayake.

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