MV X-Press Pearl, which is carrying tonnes of chemicals and plastics, has been smouldering for almost two weeks, covering tourist beaches on the western coast with oil and debris.
The Sri Lankan navy has been working with its Indian counterpart to put out the fire, which was reported last week to be under control.
X-Press Feeders, operators of the container ship, confirmed on Tuesday that even though there were no reports of visible fire aboard the vessel, “smoke is still emitting intermittently”.
Huge amounts of debris, including plastic pellets and containers, have inundated beaches, and the clean-up operation has been going on for almost a week. But experts now fear an even greater disaster should the estimated 325 tonnes of fuel oil in the ship’s tanks leak into the Indian Ocean.
Fisheries minister Kanchana Wijesekera tweeted that the salvage company involved in the operation “has indicated that the vessel is sinking at the current location”.
Fears were heightened when X-Press Feeders put out a statement in which they said that “there are now concerns over the amount of water in the hull and its effect on the ship’s stability”, adding: “Efforts to make a connection for towing failed after several attempts due to the tug’s movement caused by the swell.”
The operation was aborted for safety reasons, the company confirmed.
Several eyewitnesses, including an agency photographer, said that the vessel’s stern was under water.
Indika De Silva, Sri Lanka’s navy chief, said on Wednesday that the container ship is “facing an imminent risk of going down”.
The Sri Lankan government has launched a criminal investigation into the ship’s blaze and the marine pollution caused by it. It has seized the passports of three people, including the ship’s captain. The crew has all been evacuated. It was reported last week that crew members knew nitric acid was leaking from several containers on the ship.
The X-Press Pearl first reported smoke from the cargo hold while anchored off Colombo on 20 May, the shipping company said.
The ship was carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid which leaked and then caught fire. Officials said that nearly 1500 containers onboard have been destroyed in the fire.
Dharshani Lahandapura, Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority chief, said the disaster was the “worst ever in my lifetime”, adding that the ecological damage from the ship’s fire was being assessed.
Authorities have already put in place a ban on fishing for communities living nearby.
Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa urged those involved in the operation to try to minimise the damage to the coast.
X-Press Feeders said in a statement that it remains “fully focused on the ongoing firefighting and salvage operation and will continue cooperating with the relevant investigations into this incident”.