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Environmental Disaster Fears Grow As Chemical-Laden Ship Starts Sinking

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

News of an environmental disaster off the coast of Sri Lanka - a cargo ship called the X-Press Pearl was filled with hazardous chemicals, including 25 tons of nitric acid, when it caught fire and sank. We'll discuss this with Omar Rajarathnam, a freelance journalist in Sri Lanka. Welcome to the program.

OMAR RAJARATHNAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: How has this disaster unfolded over the past several days?

RAJARATHNAM: So this goes back to about the 21 of May when first news reports of a leak and a bit of a smoke on board this X-Press Pearl that was closer to the Colombo port, which is in the western coast, starting to make the rounds. About two days into that, we also then started hearing reports of Dutch experts having been flown in to go on board the ship to see what this smoke was about and also collect sample where the...

INSKEEP: Right.

RAJARATHNAM: ...Leak from the ship had started to pollute the waters. But everything went still - at least looked well within control until about the 25, when there was an explosion that took place on board this ship. And the crew as well as the Dutch experts and everybody who were working were kind of offloaded from it. And then soon after the news started to make the rounds that, you know, there was a huge fire on board the ship, the Sri Lankan Navy, the Air Force, Coast Guard as well as their Indian counterparts got together to - in a coordinated effort to douse the fire.

INSKEEP: I gather that they attempted to even tow the ship further out to sea so it would not devastate the coastline. But that seems not to have worked.

RAJARATHNAM: Yes. So that order really came only about two days ago from the president, having observed the work that has been going on and after technical advice that was provided. And when he ordered that the ship be towed day before yesterday, the very next day, the work began. But it appeared that it was too late by then. By the time the towing commenced yesterday, a few hours into that, the ship started to sink. And by 1 p.m. yesterday, there was confirmation that the ship had also then hit the seabed by then.

INSKEEP: Can you then describe what it's like on the beaches for miles and miles near that shipwreck?

RAJARATHNAM: Well, to start off, what is really visible is the white pebble-like material that has been scattered all over the ocean. I mean, it almost gives you this feel about, you know - the beaches don't look as bad because, you know, there is these white pebbles that are spread all across. But they are chemically hazardous. But then there is also remnants or debris from an oil leak that has washed. So there is a black-colored substance that has been washing up the shore as well. But this, again, is about 25 kilometers to the west and the east of the ship's location's course (ph) that we've seen this.

But what has been even more is the fact that, you know, there have been a few people who have been carrying these chemical waste, either back home or with them against law enforcement advice. In addition to that, we've also seen marine life washing ashore dead with - some with these pebbles stuck in their fins or their mouth. Luckily, so far, we've not seen these creatures covered in oil, but that is yet to be. We'll have to wait to really see that because the ship sank fully only yesterday.

INSKEEP: Omar Rajarathnam, a freelance journalist in Sri Lanka. Thank you so much.

RAJARATHNAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.