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X-Press Pearl fire could destroy local environment

The X-Press Pearl, carrying nearly 1500 units, caught fire on Thursday 20th May off of the Sri Lankan coast. Whilst the X-Press Pearl fire was finally extinguished almost 2 weeks later, the vessel has sunk during recovery and some of its cargo has leaked into the surrounding ocean. 

The environment has been in focus the last couple of weeks for World Environment Day and World Ocean Day, and the spilled cargo from the X-Press Pearl fire has highlighted to many how shipping incidents can affect the climate. 

The release of dangerous chemicals, oils, and plastics into the ocean can cause long-lasting environmental damage and is at the forefront of health and safety precautions for vessel owners and carriers. Unfortunately, accidents are not 100% preventable and incidents such as fires, or vessels getting stuck, require immediate emergency action to contain and limit the damage.

What harmful substances were released by the X-Press Pearl fire?

So far, the largest visible leak of contaminants is of plastic production pellets, also known as nurdles. These small pellets, typically between 1-5mms, are used to manufacture plastic goods all over the world. 

Since the X-Press Pearl fire began, nurdles have been leaked from damaged containers into the sea, and have washed up on nearby beaches. Dead fish, dolphins and turtles have been found bloated with the pellets, but it is unconfirmed that this is the cause of death when other marine pollutants are in the water. As nurdles are expected to take 500-1000 years to decompose, the clean-up of these plastic pellets is a high priority for environmentalists on site.

As well as plastic, other debris from the X-Press Pearl fire has been washing up on beaches near the wreckage that could potentially harm local wildlife. The Sri Lankan Marine Environment Protection Agency (MEPA) has reportedly collected 1075 tonnes of waste between 26th May and 10th June, with much more expected to be collected as the vessel is salvaged. 

Plastics and debris, although the most visible, are not the top priority for environmental authorities. The leakage of oil and chemicals have detrimental effects on both the local environment and food chains, and containment of any leaks is a main concern.

As a result, fishing has now been banned by the local authorities, causing locals to lose their livelihoods overnight. Hazardous chemicals have poisoned local reefs and killed several fish, but the exact compounds have not yet been identified by scientists.

There is a fear that larger fish will not die from being poisoned, but there will be the risk to human health if these fish are caught and integrated into supply chains. It is the tracing of chemicals in areas of water, and the routine testing of fish by authorities, that make documents like IUU catch certificates so essential to protecting human health.

Oil spills have not yet been reported but authorities remain on high alert for immediate containment requirements. As well as oil spills being detrimental to marine life, cleaning methods also damage the environment, which is why initial containment is so critical if there was to be a leak.

A list of the other dangerous chemicals onboard the X-Press Pearl are listed on the MEPA website, where regular updates of the operation are being published. 

How will the X-Press Pearl be cleaned up?

MEPA, along with other environmental organisations, are already clearing the plastic and debris from beaches whilst larger contingencies are in place for when there is confirmation of the level of chemical contamination, or in the event of a sudden major leak of oil.


It is still too early to determine how the remaining cargo can be safely recovered from the vessel, but a top priority for the organisations involved will be to mitigate further risk to both marine and human life.

If you’d like to know more about how the X-Press Pearl fire could affect your supply chain, please contact one of our experts today.

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