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Burning cargo ship begins sinking off Sri Lankan coast

Burning cargo ship begins sinking off Sri Lankan coast
The fire-gutted and crippled Singapore-registered container cargo vessel, MV X-Press Pearl, begins to sink about 9 nautical miles northwest of Colombo port in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Sri Lankan air force

June 2 (UPI) -- A cargo ship began to sink off the coast of Sri Lanka on Wednesday after burning for two weeks, threatening the surrounding waters with a potential oil leak.

The Singapore-flagged container shipped called the X-Press Pearl first reported smoke on board on May 20 and fire a day later. The ship had been anchored near Colombo, but Sri Lankan navy Capt. India Silva told NBC News that crews worked to tow the vessel into deeper waters Wednesday as its sinking appeared imminent.

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He said the towing was abandoned after the stern of the ship sank and rested on the sea floor. The attempt to move the ship was part of an effort to protect the lagoon and waters closer to shore.

The X-Press Pearl was carrying nearly 1,500 containers, 81 of which contained dangerous goods, including 25 tons of nitric acid, NPR reported. Silva said there was also concern the vessel could spill oil.

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The ship had dropped the contents of some burning containers into the sea, causing plastic pellets to wash ashore.

The Marine Environment Protection Authority said the military was supporting cleanup efforts at 14 locations on shore.

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Marine biologist Asha de Vos told NBC News that it was "heartbreaking" to see Pamunugama beach covered in plastic. She said a potential oil spill would complicate cleanup efforts.

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De Vos added that service members cleaning up the beach said they were removing up to 3,000 bags of waste a day.

The government temporarily halted fishing along 50 miles of coast near the burning ship to avoid contaminated seafood.

Authorities were investigating the cause of the fire, but MENA chairman Darshani Lahandapura told Mongabay it was likely caused by leaking nitric acid from the cargo.

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