Tonnes of charred plastic pellets from a burning container ship have washed ashore near Sri Lanka's capital as an international effort to salvage the vessel dragged into a ninth day.
Thick black smoke rose from the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl, anchored just outside Colombo harbour, heightening fears that it could break up spilling its 278 tonnes of bunker oil.
Navy personnel in hazmat suits were sent to clean millions of plastic granules mixed with burned oil and other residue that covered Negombo beach, 40km north of the capital.
The plastic-covered beach, normally a draw for tourists and known as a fishing centre, was declared off limits. The smoking container ship could be seen on the horizon.
Bulldozers scooped up tonnes of the polythene pellets that came from at least eight containers that fell off the ship on Tuesday.
Officials said the vessel was known to carry at least 28 containers of the pellets that are used as a raw material in the packaging industry.
The fire broke out on 20 May as the ship waited to enter the Colombo port.
It is also carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid, an unspecified quantity of ethanol and lubricants in its 1,500 containers.
Authorities believe the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak which the crew had been aware of since 11 May, Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) said.
MEPA chairman Dharshani Lahandapura said the crew could have avoided the disaster had they offloaded the leaking containers or returned them to the port of origin before entering Sri Lankan waters.
Ms Lahandapura said the MEPA is bracing for an oil spill if the X-Press Pearl breaks up as monsoon winds have fanned the flames across the length of the ship.
She said the vessel was carrying 278 tonnes of bunker oil and 50 tonnes of marine gasoil when the fire erupted.
Oil residue and charred containers have already washed ashore at Negombo.
Sri Lanka navy chief Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne said yesterday it would take days to extinguish the fire, even with the weather improving.
Four Indian vessels have joined Sri Lanka's navy in the battle to contain the fire. Salvage operations are led by the Dutch company SMIT which has sent specialist fire fighting tugs.
The 25-member crew evacuated on Tuesday and two of them suffered minor injuries in the process, the owners of the vessel said on Thursday.
SMIT, renowned salvage troubleshooters, was also involved in dousing the flames on oil tanker which caught fire off Sri Lanka's east coast last September after an engine room explosion that killed a crewman.
The fire on the New Diamond tanker took more than a week to put out and left a 40km long oil spill. Sri Lanka has demanded the owners pay a $17 million clean-up bill.