Monsoon delays salvage of fire-ravaged ship off Sri Lanka coast

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    Sinking container ship could take months to salvage because of rough monsoon seas, says Sri Lanka, as it seeks UN help in assessing damage.

    A sinking, fire-damaged container ship could take months to salvage because of rough monsoon seas, Sri Lanka says, as authorities investigate whether the deaths of dozens of turtles and dolphins were caused by the disaster.

    Part of the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl submerged in early June after catching fire and burning for almost two weeks off the island nation’s coast, releasing tonnes of plastic raw materials that swamped local beaches.

    State Minister of Urban Development and Coast Conservation Nalaka Godahewa on Tuesday said he wanted the vessel removed so it would not pose a further pollution risk.

    “We want the wreck removed yesterday, but salvors can’t start their work in current conditions,” Godahewa told reporters in the capital Colombo.

    The monsoon season started this month and usually ends in September.

    Smoke billows from the container ship as it is towed away from Colombo shores [File: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP]

    Salvors believe the ship’s fuel oil burned out during the blaze, but Godahewa said authorities remained on standby for potential leaks.

    The island’s wildlife authorities are also investigating the deaths of a number of turtles and dolphins after dozens of carcasses washed ashore over the past few weeks.

    Godahewa said autopsies were being conducted to determine if they died due to pollution from the ship following the 12-day fire.

    UN help in assessing damage

    The probe came ahead of the arrival of three UN Environment Programme experts on Wednesday to help the South Asian nation estimate the damage caused by the incident.

    Godahewa said the government contacted the UN and some other countries because “expertise within the country isn’t sufficient to accurately calculate the damage”. He did not identify the other countries.

    The vessel was known to be carrying 81 containers of hazardous chemicals, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, when it caught fire.

    Sri Lanka is seeking $40m in damages from the ship’s operators, X-Press Feeders, over what officials have described as the “worst marine disaster” in the country’s history.

    Environmentalists are suing the government and X-Press Feeders for allegedly failing to prevent the disaster, while Sri Lankan police have also launched a criminal probe against the ship’s captain, chief engineer and chief officer.

    Police arrested the ship’s Russian captain, Tyutkalo Vitaly, on Monday. He appeared before a magistrate and was later released on bail. The court banned him from leaving the country. The case will be heard again on July 1.

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