Chennai oil spill - a lesson in disaster 'mis'management

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 05, 2017 04:08 hrs

The massive oil spill off the coast of Chennai is an example of preposterous negligence on part of the government and authorities concerned. In just a week, the spill which occurred as a result of collision between two ships at the Kamrajar Port in Ennore (north Chennai) travelled 34 km south, upto Vettuvankeni in the south, according to The Hindu. The report suggested that this was due to the sea currents and that the oil can be seen making patterns in the sand along the coast.

Here is a detailed timeline of events by India Today. According to the article, the two ships involved were MT BW Maple, which was carrying LPG, and MT Dawn Kanchipuram, carrying petroleum oil lubricant. The collision took place in the early hours of January 28. The port authorities initially denied that any spill had occurred. The same report quotes a Coast Guard official, S. Paramesh, saying that the companies that owned the ships misled authorities about the scale of the spill – 

The spill is 10 times than what was reported. Location of the accident was 2 nautical miles from coastline. A Coast Guard team has been divided into small groups. As much as 80 per cent of cleaning work has been completed at Marina Beach stretch. By tomorrow evening the full stretch of Marina will be cleared.

Various media have reported on the extensive damage caused by the spill. The New Indian Express characterised the extent of damage as unprecedented and the pollution as enormous as their reporters surveyed the entire stretch of the affected area by boat.

The crew of a mechanised trawler operating in the deep sea said that thick layers of oil, measuring 10 metres in diameter, were found floating in large sections of the bay from 10 km into the sea off Marina to Thiruvanmiyur shore. As days passed by, the ship traffic turned the thick layer into tiny tar balls, which were found inside the gills of dead fish that washed ashore near Broken Bridge.

Several environmentalists and experts warn that the full extent of the damage to marine life will unfold in the days to come. The Hindustan Times interviews V. Arun, of Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network.

Oil can get into the lungs of marine species and cut off their oxygen supply, thereby smothering them. Turtles, fish and prawns coated in oil have been found dead on the beaches. It is difficult to say if the deaths in the past few days are directly linked to the oil spill but marine species are, without a doubt, being affected.

Threat to livelihood

One of the major impacts, apart from the ecological damage, is the potential loss of livelihood for the fishing community. The National Union of Fisherman filed a PIL in Madras High Court seeking the detention of the ships so as to ensure that the owners do not escape Indian territorial waters. However, the First Bench dismissed the plea saying that there was no law under which such a detention could take place –

Authorities have already seized of the matter and it's for them to take appropriate action, including the aspects of providing compensation and recovering the costs from the owners of the vessels.

The Fisheries Minister, D.Vijayakumar, also told the Assembly that there was no cause for worry as the ships had insurance and that adequate compensation would be given. Initial reports, however, show that the impact is already being felt by fish workers. The Hindu’s K.Lakshmi interviewed several of them.

According to wholesalers in Chintadripet, the fish catch from Kasimedu contributes to only 5-10% of the city’s consumption. However, customers are hesitant to buy fish following the news of oil spill polluting the coastline. Thus, fish sales have dropped by nearly 50%. G.R. Apparaj, a fish wholesaler, said it is difficult to find fish near the coast as they have gone deeper into sea after the oil spill.

The News Minute also spoke to Bharati of the South India Fishermen Welfare Association who confirmed the loss of livelihood.

Since the past four days, we have been unable to go fishing. There's some kind of residue that has settled on the shore. Those who do deep-sea fishing have been venturing into the sea. But fishermen in Chennai and Tiruvallur mostly do shallow fishing. We have incurred major losses.

Clean-up operations

The News Minute reported that the Environment Secretary said that much of the oil spill would be cleaned up by Saturday morning.

We will have to segregate the water and the non-oil components from the oil sludge. Some bacteria which will eat away the oil particles will then be introduced into the oil sludge, and once that process is complete, the remaining waste will be buried into a pit

This is likely to be done by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in a facility specially set up for this purpose at Ennore. However, thousands of volunteers continue to enthusiastically help to clean up the beaches with gloves, scooping oil into buckets. Public health professionals warn against this as crude oil can have significant toxicity.

Dr.Rakhal Gaitonde was quoted by The News Minute as saying

Problems could include skin and eye irritation, neurological and breathing problems, and stress. In the absence of comprehensive health monitoring among workers and volunteers, it is imperative that authorities take sufficient precautions to ensure workers and volunteers are protected from the chemical, physical and psychological hazards posed by the spill.

Mismanagement and the lack of accountability

The Indian Express also details various systems that have been put in place on paper. According to this detailed article by Joy Mazoomdar, the Coast Guard is the coordinating agency as per the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan (NOS-DCP) which was formulated in 1993. Just two years ago, this plan was revised to include an Online Oil Spill Advisory which boasts of India’s expertise in

Prediction of trajectory of oil spills, mapping of environmental sensitivities in coastal zones, deployment of aerial dispersant spray system and facilitating the regional oil spill contingency plans

Mazoomdar also reports that India has ratified the Bunker Convention in 2001 which commits to compensation for damage and the government’s collaboration with Oil Spill India on prevention and preparedness. Despite all of these, the disaster continues to unfold without an end in sight.

NDTV’s Sam Daniel also says that there was under-reporting on the scale of the disaster.

After initially denying any spill, the port authorities said 200 litres had leaked. The figure was amended to one metric tonne, then two-three, and finally, the Coast Guard released a more worrying assessment - 20 tonnes. Experts have wondered whether in the phase of denial, precious time was lost.

Environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman raises important issues about the lack of accountability in his article in The Hindustan Times. Noting that the port authorities and Minister of State for Ports Pon Radhakrishnan denied that any oil spill even took place, he writes –

We did have a technological deficit. Next time around, we can improve that by importing better technology. But what are we going to do about the integrity deficit – where KPL and minister felt they could lie to us? What about the regulatory deficit? Agencies such as the environment ministry, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, the State Coastal Zone Management Authority have made a virtue of rubber-stamping project licences, short-circuiting due diligence in the name of easing the doing of business. But they are absent when it comes to containing the consequences of the businesses they front.

The DMK has criticised the government’s handling of the issue and leader and Member of Parliament Kanimozhi raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha saying that different agencies of the government have not come together to deal with the disaster. As a result the issue has also been raised before the Standing Committee on Environment and Forests.

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