Colombo — Sri Lanka announced an investigation Thursday into a possible oil slick reported off its west coast, where a container ship is submerged after burning for 13 days. Coast Conservation Minister Nalaka Godahewa said local experts were asked to examine an oil patch of about 3.6 million square feet where MV X-Press Pearl ran aground earlier this month.
"I visited the area by boat yesterday and what we noticed was a thin film of oil which looked like diesel," Godahewa told reporters in Colombo.
The X-Press Pearl reported an onboard acid leak and caught fire just as it was due to enter the Colombo harbor on May 20.
The fire was put out after 13 days, but the vessel's stern hit the bottom of the shallow sea when a tug attempted to move it to deeper waters.
The operator of the vessel, X-Press Feeders, said inspection of the wreck found no oil leaks from the ship's fuel tanks, but water in the area has been discolored since the container carrier submerged on June 2.
"A grey sheen has been observed emanating from the vessel, and water samples are currently being tested," X-Press Feeders said in a statement. "Discoloration of the sea has been apparent since the vessel's stern became submerged, and the remnants of the cargo in the 1,486 containers that were onboard were exposed to water."
Sri Lankan authorities are bracing for a possible oil spill from the submerged wreck or some 386 tons of fuel oil thought to be still in its tanks.
X-Press Feeders have already deployed representatives from the International Tankers Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and Oil Spill Response (OSR) to monitor any oil spill and help with the cleanup of beaches.
Godahewa said five vessels, including two Indian Coast Guard ships equipped to deal with oil spills, were anchored around the sinking vessel, but none reported a leakage from the submerged wreck.
The ship had been carrying about 28 tons of nitric acid, along with other chemicals and cosmetics, when the fire broke out in May, according to BBC News. Many of the nearly 1,500 shipping containers on board fell into the sea before the blaze was put out earlier this week.
Tons of plastic granules from the ship have already swamped a 50-mile stretch of beach declared off-limits for residents. The granules, the raw material used to make plastic shopping bags and other items, were part of the ship's cargo.
Fishing in the area was also banned.
Sri Lankan environmentalists last week sued the government and the ship's operators for allegedly failing to prevent what they called the "worst marine disaster" in the country's history.