Chennai oil spill: planning, assessment and action inadequate

The extent of ecological and economic damange is yet to be known and coordination between the maritime board, the state disaster response team and the port authorities is absent


Tracking the oil spill

by DTE Staff

Concerns are elevating over the oil spill near Chennai, as revised estimates present proof of a much larger environmental disaster. In a new development, the Centre on February 4, has claimed that over 65 tonnes of sludge has been removed from the sea, and 90 per cent of the work is completed.

On the other hand, Tamil Nadu fisheries minister D Jayakumar, speaking to reporters on February 3, said nearly 85 per cent oil has been removed from the sea. The coast guard claimed that 72 tonnes of oil sludge has been removed.

Another media report claimed that the size of the spill was around 116 tonnes and would take 10 more days to be cleaned.

The scale of oil spill was initially estimated to be around 200 litres. The number was later updated to two tonnes and then three tonnes. It was revised again to 20 tonnes and later, 40 tonnes. The changing estimations and unsynchronised statements by officials not only raise questions on our understand of the disaster but more importantly, on our preparedness and ability to respond to it.

Nearly half a dozen turtles died near the north Chennai shoreline (Credit: iStock)

Chronology of the disaster

  • In the wee hours of January 28, two cargo ships collided off the suburban Ennore port near Chennai. The accident took place when “M T BW Maple” of Isle of Man was leaving the Kamarajar port after emptying Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and M T Dawn, Kanchipuram, loaded with petroleum oil lubricant (POL) was on its way to Ennore.
  • There was no casualty in the crew of the two ships, but impact has been showing on marine life in the region. While a section of the sea water had blackened after the spill, nearly half a dozen turtles died near the north Chennai shoreline.
  • As experts from the Anna University try to assess the scale of spill and area covered by the help of an unmanned vehicle, environmentalists are worried about long-term consequence of the oil spill. "The spill will affect oxygen supply to aquatic species. More species will die. But we are not able to assess the loss as we don't have a base line," said Emily Titus, an environmentalist.
  • Around 74 km-long coastline in and near Chennai has been affected and tar balls have collected in a 12 km stretch. As per the Coast Guard, the worst affected areas will be treated with bacteria.
  • Coast Guard men, engineering students and fishermen were seen using their hands to clear the oil spill in the sea. They resorted to manual cleaning after Chennai Metro Water’s super suckers failed to pump out the thickening sludge. On February 2, at least 1,000 volunteers were employed for physically removing blobs of oil deposited along the beaches.
  • Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has delivered bio-remediation material for treatment of the collected oil sludge for safe disposal
  • The defence ministry invited reporters to travel with Coast Guard officials on a ship from Ennore to Mahabalipuram on February 3, to review the extent of oil spill.
  • On the same day, Madras High Court asked the state government to take urgent action on the oil spill, while deliberating on a public interest litigation filed by the president of National Union of Fishermen. The court also pointed out that one of the vessels is from Iran and that the state government must take urgent action in this regard.
  • The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has issued a notice to the Kamarajar port authorities, asking if it had installed necessary infrastructure needed to deal with situations like these.
  • An application on the oil spill has also been filed with the National Green Tribunal, which will be heard on February 20.

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