Mangroves stretching over several kilometres along the coast in the eastern suburb of Mahul have been destroyed due to an oil leak from a pipeline carrying furnace oil from the sea to a refinery in the area. The sprawling black sheet of oil has settled on the mudflats too, affecting the seedlings of mangroves.

Forest officials told The Hindu that the damage was serious and had happened over a period of time. “We did not know the source of the oil leak then, but we issued a preliminary report on October 17 pointing out that oil was continuously leaking in the area,” Sanjay Mali, divisional forest officer told The Hindu after inspecting the location on Thursday.

The pipeline is owned and operated by the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT), which denied that the extensive damage was caused by their leaked pipeline alone.

“We have plugged the leak and will inspect all pipelines in the area,” said MbPT spokesperson Mohan Chandran.

Forest officials said they would soon conduct a survey to gauge the extent of damage.

“It is difficult to estimate the exact area of damage as we will have to conduct a detailed survey through the sea route,” Mr. Mali said. But oil slick-damaged mangroves could be seen on the entire stretch of the coastline from Mahul to the area behind the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Local fishermen claimed that the slick had spread at least three kilometres till Sewri on the opposite side too. The entire stretch is at least 10 kilometres.

Contaminated catch

The slick has impacted the local fishing community. “Our boats and nets have got damaged due to the oil. The thick layer which settles on the nets is difficult to clean. The fish that we catch are either dead or contaminated. We are not getting a good price for our catch,” says Jitendra Waman Koli (36), a fisherman from Mahul village said.

Many said their health had been affected. “ There are rashes all over the body. We feel weak, suffer from ailments. How often will we keep going to the doctor?” asks Dharma Koli (42).

Mahul village has around 15,000 people, mostly fisherfolk. “Different communities fish from different locations, but the oil has been spreading, affecting most of them,” said former corporator Rajendra Mahulkar. “We have submitted a written complaint to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board and the local police,” Mr. Mahulkar said.

There are several oil refineries in the area. Among them are those of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, Indian Oil Corporation Limited. However, none of them reported this extensive leak.

It was finally the local fishermen who complained to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board on November 1. It had taken the MPCB almost five months to locate the source of the leak. “We have visited the location. We will summon the highest officials of the MbPT and BPCL, and take a detailed action plan from them to contain this,” MPCB assistant secretary P.K. Mirase told The Hindu.

Inspection of the leakage site shows timely action could have prevented the damage. “It was a small crack. Had it been plugged immediately, it would have saved the mangroves, fish and livelihoods,” said Suryakant Vaiti, the president of Vanewale Macchimaar Mandal.

Patchy repair

Even as MbPT has claimed it has plugged the leak, this correspondent found that the officials had only hammered a plank of wood on the crack. Officials said they will need time to fix the crack permanently.

Moreover, no agency has taken the responsibility of clean-up.

“The leak has not happened due to any act of omission or commission on the part of MbPT. The mudflats don’t fall under our jurisdiction. But we will work together with other stakeholders to restore whatever is possible,” a spokesperson of MbPT said.