Slick captured on satellite image around sunken ship, not fuel oil, Sri Lanka says
- Satellite images show a silvery streak from a cargo ship that sank off western Sri Lanka in early June, raising fears of an oil spill.
- Authorities say the nearly 350 tons of fuel carried by the X-Press Pearl have not leaked, but have activated spill contingency plans.
- Experts say the consistency of the slick appears to rule out fuel oil, but say tests need to be done to confirm the source.
- A probable algae bloom has also developed around the wreckage, attributed to the nitric acid cargo leaking from the ship, and operations are underway to clean up the tons of plastic beads that spilled from the ship. ship and ran aground on the shore.
COLOMBO – Satellite images have captured a silvery slick spreading across the sea surface from the burning wreckage of a freighter that sank off Colombo earlier this month, but authorities deny there is had a dreaded fuel oil spill.
The footage first appeared on June 4, two days after the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl sank following a fire on board. They showed a long silvery trail coming from the ship and stretching for several miles. Analyzing a series of such images taken over the following days, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine pollution monitoring program indicated that it may have been a oil slick generated by the sunken ship.
The slick was 2.74 nautical miles (5.07 kilometers) north of the ship, and images from June 12 indicated that the slick was getting thicker, covering an area of 0.67 square kilometers (0.25 square miles). ).
The X-Press Pearl carried 297 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 51 tonnes of marine fuel. Environmental activists and experts have warned that a spill of this oil from the stricken ship would trigger an unprecedented maritime disaster for Sri Lanka. But authorities say the slick in the footage is not fuel for the ship.
No oil spill
“We have sent our ships to the area and no large-scale bunker oil spills [has] been reported by the Pearl X-Press, ”said Navy spokeswoman Indika de Silva. He said the slick was the result of light-colored oily substances released as a result of the fire and the sinking of the ship.
De Silva said the navy was working with officials from the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) to collect samples for further analysis. NARA officials say they need about two weeks to analyze the water samples and make a conclusive statement.
Initial inspections confirmed that the oil tanks had not been damaged by the fire. Experts also note that heavy fuel oil from ships is a thick, blackish, tar-like substance, while what was captured in satellite images was grayish or silvery.
“While satellite images are useful tools for detecting spills, monitoring and evaluating ongoing events, and planning countermeasures, they can sometimes yield false positives of spills such as those caused by algal blooms,” he said. It is therefore important to have a more in-depth inspection and analysis of the water samples, “Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Institute of Oceanography, told Mongabay.
Reddy has studied in detail the images of oil spills in different parts of the world. He says careful analysis and inspection is needed to conclude “whether there is actually oil, the type of oil or quantity released and whether a leak has occurred in the cargo hold or fuel tanks. of the vessel, indicating a much greater potential for rejection ”.
Despite its tarry appearance, heavy fuel oil in the ocean is often easier to clean up than other oil spills. Marine fuel oil, or marine diesel, which can spread quickly, forming a characteristic slick in rainbow hues, would be less viscous, but more difficult to contain and recover than a heavy fuel oil spill, Reddy added.
“Every spill is different, and the amount of oil that gets into the water is just the first of many variables that can cause long-term environmental disaster in a near miss,” Reddy said.
Although they cannot yet confirm a spill, the Sri Lankan authorities are still bracing for the worst. The Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) activated the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCOP) to coordinate efforts between public and private agencies to integrate resources and respond effectively.
“We installed booms covering several environmentally sensitive areas and the vessel to prevent oil from reaching the beaches. We are also trying to put a barrier around the ship, ”MEPA President Darshani Lahandapura said.
Besides the silvery streak, images of the sea surface around the wreck of the X-Press Pearl also show a circular blue-green spot, experts say.
Gothamie Weerakoon, senior curator of lichen and slimy mold at the Natural History Museum in London, said it was likely an algae boom.
“The ship was carrying nitric acid and fertilizers like urea, which would enrich the water with nitrogen which promotes plant growth,” he told Mongabay. “Sri Lanka is a tropical country where the sea surface receives a lot of sunlight, so water rich in nitrogen could easily trigger such an algae boom.”
Since there appeared to have been other chemicals aboard the X-Press Pearl, and since algae are capable of absorbing such chemicals, the resulting algae bloom could be toxic, Weerakoon said. He added that it is important to perform extensive testing to analyze the situation transparently and share this information to find solutions.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan media reported that up to 20 dead turtles have washed up on shore in the week since the ship struck the seabed. Thushan Kapurusinghe, project manager of Sri Lanka’s Turtle Conservation Project, said it was not unusual during the monsoon for turtles to be found dead, killed by rough seas and brought ashore by strong currents.
“But some carcasses appear to have abnormalities, so it is important to do a thorough autopsy to determine the cause of their death and whether there is a link to the pollution from the ship,” Kapurusinghe told Mongabay.
Two experts from the non-profit organization International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF) arrived in Sri Lanka to provide advice on responding to potential spills of oil, chemicals and other hazardous substances. The Sri Lankan government has also requested assistance from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) to assess the environmental damage caused by the X-Press Pearl.
The ship was also carrying 78 tonnes of plastic nurdles, the peppercorn-sized beads used to make all types of plastic items. Most of the nurdles fell overboard in the blaze and now present a huge cleanup challenge for Sri Lanka. This is the second largest nurdle spill after the 2012 incident in Hong Kong, in which containers containing 168 tonnes of nurdle were washed away by a ship in a typhoon.
Lahandapura said MEPA cleaned up nurdles and debris for about 200 km (125 mi) along the west coast, collecting around 1,000 tons of plastic nurdles and other debris.
Oceanographers Charitha pattiaratchi and Sarath Wijeratne from University of Western Australia predicted that plastic pollution could impact a larger area, given the prevailing winds and waves. Based on their modeling, the nurdles could make landfall on the Indonesian island of Sumatra in about 60 days. Later in the year, with the monsoon shifting, researchers say they expect the nurdles to turn back the clock, making landfall in India and again in Sri Lanka – this time on the coast. is – as well as in the Maldives and even in Somalia.
Meanwhile, the Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ), a Sri Lankan NGO, has asked the Supreme Court to seek full damages for the disaster. “We want to protect the rights of all sectors of our homeland, including the environment,” said CEJ president and lawyer Ravindranath Dabare. “We are not satisfied with the compensation Sri Lanka has received for the previous incident of the tanker MV New Diamond which caught fire last year. So we want to use this as a tool to clear things up. “
Banner image of the circular greenish stain around the sunken cargo ship the X-Press Pearl. The patch is believed to be an algae boom triggered by nitrogen enrichment after nitric acid and urea-based fertilizer were spilled into the water. Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Air Force Media.