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Sri Lankan Oil Spill- Know what is happening

Officials in Sri Lanka have started with their preparations to deal with the oil spill, after a Cargo ship carrying chemicals, recently caught fire and sank in the Lankan waters, creating a possibility of the worst-ever environmental disaster for the country. The MV X-Press Pearl is reported to have been carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and other dangerous substances when a fire broke out on 20 May while it was docked nine miles from the port in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. 

This incident has created concern amongst intergovernmental bodies, environmentalists and the international press because of the threat it poses to the environment and aquatic life.

What is an Oil Spill?

Oil is one of the most valuable commodities in the world, and with most of the developing countries dependent on oil for catering to their local demands, it is one of the most transported things in the world. This transportation takes place mostly through ships, and many times due to accidents with these container ships, Oil spills happen, creating a devastating human disaster and posing a threat to aquatic life. Apart from accidents on Cargo ships and vessels, other reasons behind oil spills include breaking of pipelines, as well as while drilling in the earth’s crust.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) defines an oil spill as oil, discharged accidentally or intentionally, that floats on the surface of water bodies as a discrete mass and is carried by the wind, currents and tides.

Oil spills can pollute land, air, or water, though it is mostly used for oceanic oil spills.

Effects of oil spills:

Ecosystem Destruction: Oil spills can have a major impact on the temporary animal and fish loss of habitat. Heavy oils may affect several organism functions like respiration, feeding, and thermo-regulation.

It can affect living beings in case of direct contact with the environment polluted with spilled oil components (some of which may persist a long time), such as drinking polluted water or breathing polluted dust particles.

Effects on flora: If the oil washes into coastal marshes, mangrove forests, or other wetlands, fibrous plants and grasses absorb oil, which can damage plants and make the area unsuitable as a wildlife habitat.

On Marine Organisms: Oil spills frequently kill marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, and sea otters.

On Birds: Oil spills also damage nesting grounds, potentially causing serious long-term effects on entire species.

Effects of oil spills on the economy:

On Economy:

1. If beaches and populated shorelines are fouled, tourism and commerce may be severely affected.

2. The power plants and other utilities that depend on drawing or discharging seawater are severely affected by oil spills.

3. Major oil spills are frequently followed by the immediate suspension of commercial fishing.

Methods through which oil spill can be cleaned:

Containment Booms: Floating barriers, called booms are used to restrict the spread of oil and to allow for its recovery, removal, or dispersal.

Skimmers: are devices used for physically separating spilled oil from the water’s surface.

Sorbents: Various sorbents (e.g., straw, volcanic ash, and shavings of polyester-derived plastic) that absorb the oil from the water are used.

Dispersing agents: These are chemicals that contain surfactants, or compounds that act to break liquid substances such as oil into small droplets. They accelerate its natural dispersion into the sea.

Bio-agents: Nutrients, enzymes, or microorganisms such as Alcanivorax bacteria or Methylocella silvestris that increase the rate at which natural biodegradation of oil occurs are added.

What happened in the recent incident near the Colombo port?

In a worrying incident that attracted global attention, the MV X-Press Pearl cargo ship which caught fire in Sri Lankan Waters was having 278 tonnes of bunker fuel oil,  50 tonnes of gas oil in its tanks, along with 20 containers of lubricating oil.  The Singapore-registered cargo ship was anchored off the port city of Negombo in Sri Lanka, when a fire erupted on board after an explosion on May 20. The onboard crew made attempts to control the fire over the last 2 weeks, but their efforts went in vain. The ship began to crumble down and toxic chemicals spilt into the ocean. At last, a Dutch salvage company attempted to bring the ship further out of the sea, but the back part of the ship hit the seabed on Wednesday. 

According to a report published in The Guardian, the Sri Lankan authorities have said that they were on standby in case oil began to spill from the half-submerged ship, which would have a catastrophic impact on the country’s marine life and fishing industry. 

The X-Press Feeders, the operators of the ship, and the spokesperson of the Sri Lankan Navy have assured that till now there hasn’t been any sign of an oil spill from the half-submerged boat, and they are closely monitoring the situation in order to deal with any eventualities. The Navy of the coastal nation has also said that they are using helicopters and navy tugboats to closely keep a watch and they were unable to pump any oil from the ship due to adverse weather conditions. The Lankan Navy also claims that if there’s any oil spill in the future, they are well prepared to prevent the oil from going elsewhere, so as not to cause any environmental damage.

But away from these claims, the effect of this disaster has already begun to show up in Sri Lanka. The hazardous wastes, microplastics, and burned debris of the vessel have washed up to the beaches of the country. This has led to the Government banning fishing within a 50-mile radius of the wreck, and ordering a criminal investigation into the cause of the accident. 

Further, speaking on the issue, Sri Lanka’s Ports’ Minister, R. Abeygunawardena, said: “We hope to get compensation in accordance with local and international law. We will never give up on that effort.” 

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