The Sri Lanka Navy and Air Force were joined by Russian warships and three Indian coastguard ships to avert a major environmental disaster while battling raging fires that erupted in an oil tanker carrying some 270,000 metric tonnes of crude oil off the eastern seas of Sri Lanka.
The latest reports indicated that the fire that started near the engine room is now spreading rapidly to all areas of the vessel and could pose major environmental fears.
The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) said all precautionary measures will be taken to prevent any environmental hazard that might be caused by this fire.
If the situation worsens, it would have a drastic effect on the seas in the North, East and South of Sri Lanka, MEPA said.
MEPA General Manager Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara said there was a risk of oil leak from the vessel, which contained 1,700 tonnes of diesel.
At least two causalities were reported from the point while one was stuck in the engine room where the fire reportedly originated. It is learnt that the man stuck in the engine room was in critical condition.
“Nineteen of the 23-member crew were evacuated from the ship initially while the captain, the first and the second officers were rescued later.
At the time of the fire, the information had come from a nearby vessel as the deck of the vessel was sealed.
“The Sri Lanka Navy deployed three navy vessels while the Air Force deployed a beach craft to assist the vessel,” Dr. Pradeep said.
“The vessel is drifting towards the Sri Lankan coast at the speed of 0.7 nautical miles per hour. However, we are taking all the necessary measures to prevent it from reaching our coast,” he said.
“This situation poses a grave threat to the fishing community. The people are living along the coastal belt of the East are advised not to wander in the areas where the risk is imminent until the relevant authorities assure the safety of the area,” he added.
Dr. Pradeep Kumara said that there would also be an effect on marine species especially whales, dolphins and turtles which are abundantly seen in the seas off Ampara.
Meanwhile, Navy Spokesman Captain Indika De Silva said two of the three Russian warships at Hambantota Port also joined in the operation by the Sri Lanka Navy to douse the fire.
“Two Russian anti-submarine ships Admiral ‘Tribuc’ and Admiral ‘Vinogradov’ and a maritime tanker ‘Boris Butoma’ arrived at the port of Hambantota on Monday,”
“The three ships arrived in Hambantota for replenishment and crew rest and the proceedings at the port have been limited only to aforementioned matters, owing to the guidelines for the prevention of COVID-19.
He said the ships were scheduled to depart the island yesterday. But they had joined the navy operation to douse the fire.
The vessel 'New Diamond' was built in the year 2000, was reportedly on its way from Kuwait's Mina Al Ahmadi port to the Paradip port, a major gateway on India’s east coast. The Panama-registered oil tanker was loaded with approximately two million barrels of crude oil and there were 23 crew members on board the ship when disaster struck. (Darshana Sanjeewa Balasuriya and Sheain Fernandopulle)