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Blazing tanker off Sri Lanka sparks fears of new Indian Ocean disaster

AFP/Reuters/Colombo, Sri Lanka
Filed on September 4, 2020
oil tanker, blazing, sri lanka, new diamond, indian ocean
This handout photograph taken on September 4, 2020, and released by Sri Lanka's Air Force shows fireboats battling to extinguish a fire on the Panamanian-registered crude oil tanker New Diamond, some 60 kms off Sri Lanka's eastern coast where a fire was reported inside the engine room.

(AFP)

Sri Lankan Navy warn it could take five days to put out the blaze on the 330-metre-long New Diamond.

A Panamanian-registered oil tanker burned out of control for a second day off Sri Lanka on Friday, raising fears of a major new oil spill in the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lankan navy and India coastguard vessels fired water cannons while an air force helicopter dropped water on the drifting New Diamond.

Just a week after a huge oil slick hit the Mauritious coast, Sri Lanka authorities are preparing for the worst as the navy warned it could take five days to put out the blaze on the 330-metre (1,000 feet) long New Diamond.

The ship was carrying 270,000 tonnes of crude from Kuwait to India when the engine room exploded on Thursday killing one Filipino crew member. The other 22 crew -- five Greek and 17 Filipino -- were taken off the vessel.

The Sri Lankan navy said there was no immediate danger of the tanker breaking up, despite reports of a two-metre (six-foot) crack in the hull above the water line.

Rear Admiral Y. N. Jayaratne said the metal had cracked in the intense heat as the fuel tanks burned when the fire spread from the adjoining engine room. The fire has not yet touched the crude however.

- Closer to coast -

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

The ship was heading for the eastern Indian port of Paradip when it issued a distress signal 60 kilometres (38 miles) from Sri Lanka's east coast.

On Friday the stricken vessel had drifted 25 kilometres closer to the shore, Sri Lankan officials said adding that it was now being pushed back.

India and Sri Lanka have deployed reconnaissance planes to track the ship. Sri Lanka's Disaster Management Centre said there was no immediate danger of an environmental disaster.

"It is not as bad as it seems," DMC head Sudantha Ranasinghe told AFP. "Once the fire is put out, the vessel will be towed further away into deeper waters."

But the head of Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Agency (MEPA) Dharshani Lahandapura said legal action could be taken against the owners, Liberian-registered Porto Emporios Shipping Inc "should the worst happen and the ship breaks up."

Lahandapura told reporters that Sri Lanka did not have the resources to contain a major oil spill.

But Ranasinghe said authorities were considering a ship-to-ship transfer of the crude before salvaging the tanker.

- Maldives fears disaster -

The vessel is larger than the Japanese bulk carrier MV Wakashio, which crashed into a reef in Mauritius in July leaking more than 1,000 tonnes of oil into the island nation's pristine waters.

Sri Lanka's neighbour Maldives has raised concerns that any oil spill from the New Diamond could cause serious environmental damage in the atoll of 1,192 coral islands that depends on fisheries and tourism.

Maldivian minister at the president's office, Ahmed Naseem, called for precautionary measures across the archipelago that is about 1,000 kilometres southwest of Sri Lanka.

"Maldives needs to watch this oil spill carefully and take all precautions to prevent it from reaching her shores," Naseem said on Twitter. "This could be a major disaster."

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.

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

Initially, the ship was stranded 38 kms (24 miles) east of the town of Thirukovil, but drifted within 25 kms of the coast after being abandoned. Authorities were now towing it eastward, away from the coast, De Silva said.

Thirukovil is a town in Sri Lanka's Ampara district that was badly battered by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Arugam Bay, a world-renowned surfing spot, is nearby.

"The missing Filipino sailor is presumed dead. He was badly injured when a boiler exploded," De Silva told Reuters, 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."

Sri Lanka's meteorology department had already modelled the impact of 70,000 tonnes of crude oil - a quarter of the ship's cargo - spilling into the ocean.

The simulation, a worst case scenario according to authorities, found that such a spill would not immediately threaten the country's east coast.

But Dharshani Lahandapura, chair of Sri Lanka's federal Marine Environment Protection Authority, told Reuters that any spill from the ship would be catastrophic for marine life.

"It will be a huge environmental and economic disaster if this happens," she said.

The 1989 oil spill from the Exxon Valdez, considered one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters, spewed about 37,000 tonnes of crude into waters off Alaska.

The 20-year old New Diamond, chartered by Indian Oil Corp (IOC), had sailed from the port of Mina Al Ahmadi in Kuwait, loaded with Kuwait Export Crude, Refinitiv Eikon tracking data showed. It was heading for the Indian port of Paradip, where state-run IOC has a 300,000 barrel-per-day refinery.


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