A burning X-Press Pearl container ship in the Indian Ocean dumped tons of plastic trash on the beaches of Sri Lanka. This led to a massive environmental disaster.

The X-Press Pearl sailed for Sri Lanka from India and was at anchor near Colombo on 20 May when the crew first reported smoke in the ship’s cargo hold. According to the information center X-Press Pearl, on May 21 a fire broke out on the deck, later the fire intensified and continued to spread. On May 24, the crew was evacuated from the ship.

By 31 May, with the help of the Sri Lankan Navy, fire tugs and the Indian Coast Guard, the fire had been brought under control. The visible flame was gone, but the smoke remained. It is unclear how the fire started, but authorities speculate that the flames were due to a fuel leak in one of the ship’s containers, according to The Washington Post.

The vessel transported 297 tons of fuel oil, 51 tons of marine fuel oil and 81 containers full of “dangerous goods”, including 28 tons of nitric acid. The vessel also carried three containers or 78 tons of plastic pellets that now cover the beaches of Sri Lanka’s west coast.

The authorities warn people about the dangers of the pellets and urge them not to touch them as they are contaminated with chemicals. If swallowed by marine species, the entire food chain will be contaminated.

“This is an ecological disaster, and currents could carry dangerous plastic all the way to the other side of Sri Lanka, potentially killing wildlife and damaging ecosystems,” marine biologist Asha de Vaux told the Washington Post.

The authorities also temporarily banned fishing in these areas. The National Water Research and Development Agency is engaged in the sampling and analysis of dead fish and turtles found along the west coast.