Sri Lanka braces for environmental disaster as ship sinks

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Authorities in Sri Lanka were trying to head off a potential environmental disaster Thursday as a fire-damaged container ship that had been carrying chemicals was sinking off of the country’s main port.

The Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl started sinking Wednesday, a day after authorities extinguished a fire that raged on the vessel for 12 days. Efforts to tow the ship into deeper waters away from the port in Colombo failed after the ship’s stern became submerged and rested on the seabed.

The ship’s operators, X-Press Feeders, say the fire destroyed most of the ship’s cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals. But there are fears that remaining chemicals as well as hundreds of tons of oil from the vessel’s fuel tanks could leak into the sea.

Such a disaster could devastate marine life and further pollute the island nation’s famed beaches. The disaster has already caused debris — including several tons of plastic pellets used to make plastic bags — to wash a ashore.

The government already has banned fishing along about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of coastline.

The ship operator said Thursday that the vessel’s stern was resting on the seabed about 21 meters (70 feet) below the surface and the ship’s bow was “settling down slowly.” It said salvage experts were remaining with the vessel “to monitor the ship’s condition and oil pollution.”

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