A slick on the shore and the murky aftermath

The recent oil spill may have dire implications for marine life and the livelihood of fisherfolk. It also raises questions on our preparedness to meet such disasters.

Updated - November 28, 2021 09:55 pm IST

Published - February 12, 2017 01:37 am IST - CHENNAI:

A total of 208 tonnes of oil sludge was collected manually and 99,000 litres of oil and water were collected through super suckers in the clean-up operations that concluded on Thursday.

A total of 208 tonnes of oil sludge was collected manually and 99,000 litres of oil and water were collected through super suckers in the clean-up operations that concluded on Thursday.

A few hours before daybreak on January 28, the gentle whoosh of ships coursing at Kamarajar Port in Ennore was rudely broken as two vessels, one entering the port, and the other leaving, collided with each other.

One ship rammed the other, metal tore into metal and some oil leaked into the sea as a result. At the time, port authorities and officers on the ship scrambled to see if the contents of the ships’ cargo — m.v. BW Maple , an LPG tanker, and MT Dawn Kanchipuram carrying spirit oil and diesel – had spilled. As they heaved a sigh of relief at the combustible material remaining intact, dark, viscous engine oil leaked out of the damaged ship into the blue waters of the bay. The repercussions of this were to be enormous for this city that takes great pride in its shore line, the second longest in the world, its beaches, and sea life.

Two weeks down the line, the incident has exposed chinks in the State's disaster recovery mechanism, lack of transparency and coordination, and once again brought to the fore the role of volunteers.

The collision

On Saturday morning, everything went well at the port till the pilot of m.v. BW Maple disembarked near the breakwaters of the port. Officials claimed the captain of the ship informed the pilot that he was a regular on the route and could navigate out of the channel by himself. Roughly 10 minutes later, around 3.45 a.m, the vessel collided with the inbound m.v. MT Dawn Kanchipuram , which was carrying 26,806 metric tonnes (MT) of spirit oil and 6,008 MT of high-speed diesel.

As bunker oil spilled from MT Dawn Kanchipuram , official response was slow. There was no information about the spill in the public domain. Kamarajar Port officials issued a press release on the day of the accident claiming “there is no damage to the environment like oil pollution and no casualty or injury to persons.” As a result, precious time was lost. The Coast Guard, the designated agency to tackle oil spills on the coast, was informed only around 6 a.m., and they began their helicopter sorties from 7 a.m.

Fish sales dip

When cleaning operations came to a close on Thursday, 208 tonnes of oil mixed with sludge and 99,000 litres of oil mixed with water had been removed. This has thrown into question the future of fishermen and the marine life off Ennore’s coast and the rest of Chennai. “The bottom of our boats became black and so did our feet when we dragged the boats to sea. Fish prices have fallen. Despite several fish food festivals being held, consumers are still hesitant,” M.D. Dayalan of Indian Fishermen Association said.

Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar claimed that the fish were not affected by the oil spill, and they were safe to eat. However, Banwari Lal, senior director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), cautioned that marine life would be affected over a longer period of time. “Bunker oil is heavy oil. With weight and density, it will become like a tar ball, and sink to the sea bottom and settle on the sea bed.” The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board too admitted in the National Green Tribunal that the oil was like tar. The TNPCB also informed the Tribunal that the super suckers involved in the operations were breaking down as the sludge was very heavy.

Dr. P.M.Natarajan, former member, State level Expert Appraisal Committee, Government of Tamil Nadu, said the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill persisted even five years after the incident. “We can expect the same on the Chennai coast. Continuous monitoring is needed to assess the impact on the people and environment.”

Oxygen shortage

According to Dr. Lal, the oil spilled in the sea will restrict oxygen supply to marine life. “Whenever an oil spill occurs, marine life such as sea birds and fish will come in contact with it. Once fishes come into contact with the oil, their respiratory system will get affected and they will die,” he said. A number of scientific studies on this topic from earlier oil spills across the world too point out a similar impact on marine life.

A landmark judgement in the NGT — Samir Mehta vs the Union of India — in the aftermath of the sinking of MV Rak off the Mumbai coast, observed that “an oil spill has significant negative impacts on marine ecology, particularly on the aquatic community. Impact of immediate nature includes the mortality of different animal species, both microscopic and macroscopic invertebrates like molluscs, arthropods, echinoderms, etc. and vertebrates, especially fish. Long-term impact includes changes in the community structure caused mainly by changes in physiological and biological behaviour of different species in the community due to differential impact of the oil spill.” The NGT imposed a fine of ₹100 crore in the case.

Fishermen are already feeling the heat due to the oil spill. M. Vijesh of the Kasimedu traditional crafts Association said, “The rates are usually high this time of the year though the catch won’t be heavy. But due to the oil spill, nobody has gone out to fish. Labourers who are dependent on the trade, who used to make ₹400-500 a day, are hardly making ₹50. How can you run a family on such a meagre amount?”

Dr. Natarajan also said the impact of the oil spill on desalination plants in Chennai would have to be monitored. Quoting a report of the Fisheries department from 2010-11, he said, “In case of negligence, the annual fish catch that was 34,283.110 tonnes in 2010-11 and worth more than ₹10 million in Chennai district will be affected, which in turn will affect the livelihoods of the fisherfolk”.

Turtles in danger

Olive Ridley turtles nest along the coast in Chennai, and also from Ennore to Pulicat. While the biggest dangers turtles face are from trawling nests — nearly 180 turtles have washed up dead on the shores of Chennai since January 1 this year — the oil spill is likely to cause major problems too. “It was not clear if the 30 turtles which were washed ashore in recent days died due to the oil spill,” Akila Balu of the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, said.

“Turtles need to come up to the surface to breathe while in the sea. Sometimes, they ingest surface water while taking in air. The oil which is on the surface could accidentally be ingested and will go into the lungs and kill the turtles,” Ms. Akila said.

“The surface oil will be carried by currents and it will get deposited on floating seaweed. Young turtles live in the seaweed, which act as a shelter for them. Hatchlings are also known to swallow little particles in the water,” she said. The oil spill may also have affected turtle nesting, the season for which began in December.

Learning exercise

The Ministry of Defence promulgated the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan in 1996. Despite all States being asked to come up with a contingency plan, only a few have complied, as there seems to be no compulsion or obligation to submit a plan.

At the meeting of the Tamil Nadu State Coastal Zone Management Authority in January 2016, it was resolved to “request all the Port Trusts to prepare a Comprehensive Oil Spill Management Plan suitably incorporating the mechanism to detect the oil spill for their areas since none of the Ports have a Comprehensive Oil Spill Management Plan, which is in consonance with the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan of the Ministry of Shipping and Surface Transport, Government of India,” the minutes of the meeting shows.

The Tamil Nadu Maritime Board was nominated to prepare a contingency plan. All of this remains only on paper. In fact, many of the officers involved in the clean-up operation and the whole oil spill privately admitted that this was the first time they were dealing with such a problem. While it was a learning exercise for them, it also exposed the lack of preparedness to deal with oil spills.

Health hazards

Many people, who were involved in the clean-up operations, reported skin allergies and minor injuries. State health authorities had set up medical camps at the site of the oil spill. “The skin allergies were due to the oil, while the minor injuries were from volunteers slipping on the oil-coated rocks,” doctors said.

Mr. Bhanwari Lal of TERI said bunker oil was more toxic than crude oil. “It has heavy hydrocarbons, polycyclic aeromatic hydrocarbons – these are toxic compounds and could have an adverse impact on health. It is also carcinogenic,” he says.

What makes this worrying is the lack of adequate safety equipment provided to those in the clean-up operations. Some volunteers who turned up at the site to help said they were provided gum boots, and gloves which covered their hands only till their wrists. “Also, being exposed to the smell of oil throughout the day gave many of us headaches,” a volunteer said.

“We did not see any significant cases of respiratory distress,” said J. Prabakaran, deputy director of health services, Tiruvallur who had set up a camp with four teams from January 30 onwards. On Thursday, the teams were withdrawn from the site and moved to Pazhaverkadu, he said. “We have been seeing 150 to 200 people at the camp every day, but a majority are local residents coming in with fevers, colds and coughs,” he said.

Teams from the Chennai Corporation, Madras Medical College and Government Stanley Medical College were also at the site of the oil spill. The medical college teams wrapped up their work on February 5, he said. A doctor from Government Stanley Medical College said their team saw around 40 patients every day, mostly local residents, apart from minor injuries.

Questions linger

Although an investigation has been ordered into the incident, there are still many unanswered questions, the key being ‘how much oil has actually been spilled into the sea?’ While initially, the claim was that it was just one to two tonnes, the Coast Guard put the figure at more than 20 tonnes. Officials at a press conference, including the Director General of Shipping Malini V. Shankar, who boarded the damaged ship to investigate and other officials, side stepped questions on the leakage.

“This is a huge ship. It has several tanks inside. Each one has to be inspected and the oil transferred from one tank to another to find out the leakage,” Ms. Shankar said. A question as to whether the Captain of the ship had informed officials of the quantity of furnace oil in the vessel too was met with a vague answer. A report on the investigation to find out who was at fault, what action needs to be taken, and other such details was expected, but it could take up to two months for it to be completed, officials said.

The Director General of Shipping has already put in place a compensation process for those affected. A slew of cases is pending at the Green Tribunal. However, what is required is a proper procedure for oil spill contingencies and greater accountability of agencies.

( With inputs from Zubeda Hamid )

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