Blazing tanker sparks fears of a new Indian Ocean disaster

The Panamanian-registered vessel, currently off Sri Lanka’s coast, is carrying about 270,000 tonnes of crude oil.

Ships and aircraft from Sri Lanka and India intensified efforts to extinguish a fire on an oil tanker for a second day on Friday as officials warned of significant environmental damage to Sri Lanka’s coast if the ship leaks or explodes.

The tanker, carrying nearly two million barrels of crude oil, was drifting about 40km (22 nautical miles) from the coast, army chief Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva said on Friday. A navy spokesman, Captain Indika de Silva, said there were 23 crew on board, one of whom is presumed dead.

“The missing Filipino sailor is presumed dead. He was badly injured when a boiler exploded,” de Silva told the Reuters news agency, citing crew who were rescued.

“There were five Greek and 18 Philippine nationals among the crew. One of them was injured and he was airlifted out of the ship and the rest were accounted for.”

The fire that broke out in the engine room of the New Diamond on Thursday morning had spread to the bridge of the ship, though it has not reached the cargo area, the Sri Lankan navy said.

Three tug boats, five Sri Lankan navy ships as well as two craft from the Russian navy and three from the Indian navy have been assisting in an operation to fight the fire and tow the ship away from the coast, after it began drifting towards land.

The Panamanian-registered tanker was transporting crude oil from the port of Mina Al Ahmadi in Kuwait to the Indian port of Paradip, where the state-owned Indian Oil Corp has a refinery.

At present, the vessel is being held by the salvage team in deep-sea 35kms (21.7 miles) east of the Sri Lankan town of Pottuvil, de Silva said.

Potential environmental disaster

Director-General of Operations Rear Admiral Y N Jayarathna told reporters it was the navy’s view that there was no real danger of a spill, because the fire on the ship has been contained in the rear section of the vessel.

“The live flames have now died down and there is only white smoke emanating from the vessel,” he told a televised news conference.

“It will take another four to five days to completely put out the fire,” Jayaratne added. “Thereafter we should be able to tow it away and let the owners decide what they want to do.”

However, head of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority, Darshani Lahandapur, warned that if a leak or explosion occurs, “it could be a huge environmental disaster for the whole world”.

She said Sri Lanka does not have the resources or capacity to combat such an enormous disaster.

The Maldives, about 1,000km (625 miles) southwest of Sri Lanka, has a large coral eco-system in its waters and expressed concern over a potential spill.

“[The] Maldives needs to watch this oil spill carefully and take all precautions to prevent it from reaching her shores,” Ahmed Naseem, Maldivian minister at the president’s office, wrote on Twitter.

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