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Tons of toxic pellets blanket Sri Lanka beaches, causing environmental disaster

Sri Lankan Navy soldiers work to remove debris that washed ashore from a burning container ship.
Sri Lankan Navy soldiers work to remove debris that washed ashore from a burning container ship. (Image credit: Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)

A burning container ship dumped tons of plastic debris onto Sri Lanka's beaches, prompting a widespread environmental disaster, according to recent news reports.

The ship, the X-Press Pearl, had sailed to Sri Lanka from India and was anchored near Colombo on May 20, when the crew first reported smoke coming from their cargo hold, according to the X-Press Pearl Incident Information Center. On May 21, a fire started on deck and over the next week, the fire intensified and continued to spread. On May 24, the 13-person crew and 12-person firefighting crew were evacuated from the ship.

By May 31, with the help of the Sri Lankan Navy, firefighting tugs and the Indian coast guard, the fire was brought under control, with no visible flames remaining, but still some smoke, according to the Information Center. It's not yet clear how the fire started, but authorities are suggesting that a leak from the ship's containers sparked the flames, according to The Washington Post.

Related: Top 5 ways to reduce toxins in homes

The ship was carrying 327 tons (297 metric tons) of heavy fuel oil, 56 tons (51 metric tons) of marine fuel oil and 81 containers full of "dangerous goods," including 28 tons (25 metric tons) of nitric acid, a corrosive compound. The ship was also carrying three containers or 86 tons (78 metric tons) of plastic pellets, some of which fell off the ship and are now covering beaches down to the south coast of Sri Lanka, according to Mongabay.

Authorities are warning people not to touch the pellets, known as nurdles, as they can be contaminated with chemicals, according to Mongabay. Nurdles, which are the raw material used in making other plastic items, can absorb chemicals over time, and if marine species swallow them, they can contaminate the food chain.

"It's an environmental disaster," and currents can carry the pellets as far as the other side of Sri Lanka, potentially killing wildlife and damaging ecosystems, marine biologist Asha de Vos told the Post. Vos described the beaches as being filled with piles of plastic "snow."

Authorities have also temporarily banned fishing in these areas; and the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency is sampling and analyzing dead fish and turtles found along the western coast to see if their deaths are related to the spills.

Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection and military personnel are working to remove the nurdles from the beaches before the pellets wash back into the water. Crews are temporarily dumping them into a hazardous waste yard and once scientists analyze the pellets , authorities will destroy them, according to Mongabay.

The cleanup will likely be challenging, Muditha Katuwawala, coordinator of the Pearl Protectors, a nonprofit organization that sends volunteers to clean beaches, told Mongabay. "We foresee that the cleaning process will be a lengthy operation, so we started creating tools that can assist the cleaning operations and to create awareness around beach pollution of such magnitude."

Because of a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in Sri Lanka, Pearl Protectors hasn't been able to clean up after this incident, according to Mongabay. 

Originally published on Live Science.