COLOMBO: A fire-striken Singapore-flagged cargo vessel laden with chemicals started to sink on Wednesday off Sri Lanka's main port, a senior navy official said, fuelling severe environmental concerns as the container ship still has several hundred tonnes of oil in its fuel tanks.
Water submerged the MV X-Press Pearl's rear end a day after firefighters from Sri Lanka and India climbed onto the vessel and extinguished a blaze that had been burning for 12 days.
"The rear end of the vessel is being submerged. This was at the same time as the rescue team got on board in order to facilitate the towing of the vessel to deeper seas for safety reasons," Sri Lanka Navy spokesman Indika de Silva said.
"The ship is under water, the water level is above the deck. The ship is going down," de Silva said.
On Wednesday morning experts were trying to tow the ship farther out to sea, some 9 nautical miles away from the Colombo port where it had been anchored since May 20, to prevent its sinking at the current position which would have caused severe pollution.
The order to tow the ship came from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa late Tuesday.
"The President gave instructions to issue an order to tow the vessel into the deep seas based on the powers vested with the Chairman of the Marine Environment Protection Authority and based on technical facts as well as the advice of the Attorney General," a statement from his office said.
The cargo vessel, which was carrying a consignment of chemicals and raw materials for cosmetics from Hazira in Gujarat to Colombo Port, caught fire on May 20 outside the Port of Colombo, where it was anchored.
Apart from the 325 metric tonnes of fuel in its tanks, the vessel was loaded with 1,486 containers carrying about 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid.
The Pearl Protectors, a Sri Lanka marine environment awareness collective, said the burnt-out ship along with its cargo and wreckage had started to sink, adding that there was an imminent danger of an oil spill.
It said the ship's disaster was the worst marine environmental disaster in the region ever recorded.
Sri Lankan environmentalists have described it as one of the worst ecological disasters in the country's history and have warned of a potential threat to marine life and the fishing industry.
Large quantities of plastic debris have already inundated beaches, and authorities now fear an even greater disaster if the 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of gas in the ship's fuel tanks leak into the Indian Ocean.
The entire western coastal line has become swamped with the waste from the vessel's fire mostly plastic beads which are harmful to the marine ecology, experts have said.
The plastic pellets, or nurdles, are used to make other plastic products and are a big source of ocean plastic pollution.
Due to their small size, the pellets can be mistaken for food to birds, fish and other marine wildlife.
The coastal area is known for fishing, and mangroves around the Negombo Lagoon -- a major tourist attraction and sensitive ecological spot.
Minister of fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera has said all fishing vessels entering the sea from the west coast's Negombo have been stopped and no fishing would be allowed in view of the ship's sinking.
India on May 25 dispatched ICG Vaibhav, ICG Dornier and Tug Water Lilly to help the Sri Lankan Navy extinguish the fire.
India's specialised pollution response vessel Samudra Prahari reached there on May 29.
India had named the rescue efforts Operation Sagar Araksha 2.
All 25 crew members of the ship -- of Indian, Chinese, Filipino and Russian nationality -- were rescued on May 21.
Authorities have launched an investigation into the fire and statements would be recorded from one Indian and two Russian officials on duty on the vessel.
While the Indian official was the deputy chief engineer of the ship, the two Russians were the captain and chief engineer respectively.
The authorities believe that the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak which the crew reportedly knew about nine days before the fire began.
A court ordered on Tuesday to impound the passports of all three pending investigations.