Earlier 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 stood burning off the Sri Lanka coast, plumes of thick dark smoke that could be seen from miles away. But the X-Press Pearl has now fallen silent, lying half sunken off the coast of Sri Lanka, its hull resting on the shallow ocean bed.
But though the flames have now been doused – the problems have only just begun.
Onboard the ship, there are still towers of containers stacked upon each other, many containing chemicals highly dangerous to the environment – some of these have already leaked into the water, sparking fears that it may poison marine life.
Additionally, tons of tiny plastic pellets have already washed up on local beaches nearby. And then there’s the hundreds of tonnes of engine fuel sealed in the sunken hull that could also potentially leak into the sea.
Aside from the environmental threats, there are also devastating consequences for the local communities, fishermen who overnight lost their livelihoods and will likely suffer for years to come.
“We are small time fishermen and we go to sea daily. We can only earn something if we go to sea – otherwise our entire family will starve,” one local fisherman, Denish Rodrigo, told the BBC.
“There were some 46 different chemicals on that ship,” Hemantha Withanage, a Sri Lankan environmental activist and founder of the Centre for Environmental Justice in the capital Colombo, told the BBC.
“But what’s been most visible so far are the tonnes of plastic pellets.”
Since late May, such pellets from the X-Press Pearl cargo have ended up on the Negombo beaches while fish have already been washed up with bloated bellies and pellets stuck in their gills.
The plastic can take between 500 to 1000 years to decompose and is likely to be carried by ocean currents to shores all around Sri Lanka and even to beaches hundreds of kilometres away from the shipwreck.
Yet while the plastic might be the most visible impact so far, it’s not the most dangerous one.
“If these nurdles are within fish we eat, they’re usually in the fish’s digestive tract,” Britta Denise Hardesty of Australia’s CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere told the BBC. “But we don’t eat the entire fish unless it’s maybe anchovies or sardines.
“Pellets are often sensationalised but there is no strong evidence that humans are shown to have detrimental impact from eating fish that may have eaten plastics.