Mumbai oil spill: threat to marine life, coast

Authorities shrug off questions about liability

By Reshma Jathar
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

imageTwo cargo ships collided off the Mumbai coast on August 7 causing an oil spill that spread quickly through Maharashtra's coastline. MSC Chitra ruptured its tank when it hit incoming MV Khalijia and ran aground at Colaba, near Prongs Reef Lighthouse. The vessel contained about 1,200 tonnes of fuel oil in its tanks of which 800 tonnes spilled into the Arabian Sea before the leaks could be plugged two days later.

The collision damaged Khalijia's prows. Chitra tilted precariously at a 75o angle which caused 400 containers on its deck to fall off and float in the sea. Some of these containers had toxic organophosphate pesticides (See Also: Dangerous cargo).

Mangroves wear black slick

In scale, the spill was much smaller than the one in the Gulf of Mexico in April. But it is proving a major threat to the marine ecology of the area and the coast. "Entire mangroves in our area turned black. It was a scary sight," said Dipesh Khattu, a teenager from Pirwadi village in Uran taluka of Raigad, one of the affected districts about 100 km from Mumbai. But the extent of the damage would be known only after the oil spill's environmental impact is assessed.

The Union environment ministry has hired the services of two research institutes—the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (neeri) in Nagpur and the National Institute of Oceanography at Goa—to assess the impact of the spill. The Indian Oil Corporation will study the marine life in the affected areas.

Initial observations by non-profit Bombay Natural History Society (bnhs), conducting its own ecological assessment study, indicate the slick has spread to the beaches in Alibaug in Raigad, 108 km from Mumbai. Deepak Apte, assistant director of bnhs, said two scientists groups from the organization would look into how the mangroves have been damaged and the impact of the oil on the ecosystems. The non-profit will complete its rapid assessment study in three months.

Ecologists said the picture is grim. "The oil spill will affect fish species; many of them breed in mangroves. The chemicals sprayed to disperse the oil too would affect the marine ecology," said B F Chhapgar, a marine biologist. "The chemical dispersants break the oil into small droplets which then settle at the bottom of the sea and affect marine life," he explained. Chhapgar also expressed concern over the threat posed by the chemical containers still afloat in the sea. If the pesticides leak, marine animals would be severely impacted, he said.

Oil spill or accidental discharge?

The oil spill caught the government agencies unaware. The state pollution control board (spcb), the state environment department and the port authorities could provide no details as to who was liable. "We are dealing with the present incident not as an oil spill but as an accidental discharge as defined in the Environment Protection Act (epa) of 1986. There is no law covering oil spill as such and the consequential environmental damage," said Y B Sontakke, regional officer of spcb stationed in Mumbai. So, the fir was filed against the companies under epa and the Indian Penal Code sections relating to rash navigation (Section 280) and endangering life of others (Section 336).

The agencies passed the buck to each other when asked about fixing liability and responsibility. Though the Maharashtra spcb has released  image80 lakh towards initial clean-up operation, its officials claimed it was not the responsibility of the board to fund the cleaning.

Minister of state for environment Jairam Ramesh informed the Rajya Sabha that both shipping companies would be made to pay the clean-up cost. But it is not clear how they would be made to pay since the ships bear foreign registration; Chitra is registered in Panama while Khalijia is registered in St Kitts. Liability is covered by the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage of 2001, but India is not a signatory to it. (See Also: India pledges to sign Bunker Convention after the spill).

State environment secretary Valsa R Nair Singh said a maritime lawyer, hired by directorate general (DG) for shipping at Mumbai, would conduct negotiations with the polluters for compensating all claims. When contacted, joint director general of shipping, Satish Agnihotri, denied this. "DG-Shipping will not make claims for any other agency. All concerned agencies would make separate compensation claims," Agnihotri said, refusing to comment on liability.

Contingency plan only on paper

Only one document deals with the subject—the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan of 1996 (See Also: What the disaster plan says). The document was issued by the Ministry of Defence in 1996; it was last updated in March 2006. The nos-dcp, as the plan is commonly known, gives the Indian Coast Guard the mandate to co-ordinate with state departments, ministries, port authorities and environmental agencies to assist in oil spill cleaning operations.

It mandates that all major ports in India should have basic, minimum equipments, like inflatable booms and oil skimmers, to tackle oil spill. It also specifically states that the Mumbai Port Trust should have a tier-I response system, capable of handling oil spills up to 700 tonnes. The Mumbai oil spill exposed lack of preparedness of the port trust; it could provide no help to the Coast Guard. The Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust that shares the Mumbai port's navigational channel, was of no help either.

"Timely action would have helped reduce the impact of oil spill," said Baban Ingole, senior scientist with National Institute of Oceanography.

—with inputs from Rajil Menon

Dangerous cargo
What the disaster plan says
India pledges to sign Bunker Convention after the spill

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  • Please see the success given

    Please see the success given below.

    BioSanitizer Ecochip technology was used to treat sewage in an eco-friendly manner about three
    years before the oil spill.
    Ecochips are tiny biocatalyst crystals that work for several years, without getting depleted.
    Hence there are no recurring expenses on manpower, electricity or chemicals.
    Total investment was half that of conventional technologies that also have heavy operating
    BioSanitizer Ecochips convert nitrates, heavy metals and other harmful inorganic pollutants, plus
    carbon dioxide(greenhouse gas from the ambient air) into organic food and oxygen, just like
    natural forest ecosystem. The treated sewage has higher food/toxicity ratio that ensures healthy
    ambiance that has no odour, pathogens and pests.
    Use of such eco-treated sewage for irrigation reduced odour, pests and crow nuisance. It
    created fresh air that one experiences in thick forest. After all, 100 mg of BioSanitizer Ecochip
    offers us same eco-services as are rendered by 1 acre of natural forest ecosystem.
    Normally half of BioSanitizer-treated sewage went into the sea and during the rain spell, total
    flow went into the sea.
    This showed remediation of sea pollution, with respect to raw sewage(odour) and oil.

    When the accident of August 7, 2010 brought heavy oil spill in the nearby sea, one could sea
    that the oil is getting cracked due to the BioSanitizer reaction that had got set up in the sea.
    Mangroves that were completely submerged in the oil-spilled seawater, grew healthy shoots
    because the BioSanitizer reaction converted toxic crude oil into organic plant tonic. Fish and
    crabs can be seen happy in the remediated seawater.
    Fish that was sampled by the government officers after the oil spill(fearing contamination),
    showed no such contamination. Government withdrew their order that prohibited consumption
    of Mumbai fish.
    No mass death of clean-band aquatic organisms such as pomfrets or crabs was noticed, implying
    remediation of Mumbai oil spill.
    One can thus treat sewage or any other wastewater using BioSanitizer Ecochips, use it as a
    resource on land and also to keep the nearby water body ÔÇÿfire-readyÔÇÖ.
    Because the nearby coast was ÔÇÿfire-readyÔÇÖ remediation could start without any delay.
    Government clean-up action, using old bioremediation technology could start only on August
    18(11 days after the oil spill). Moreover, this standard method of bioremediation converts
    relatively nontoxic oil component into greenhouse gases, keeping the invisible toxic component
    behind. Nutrients that are demanded by the oil-eating bacteria also get added to the load of
    pollution, after the bacteria die.
    Residual oil may take reasonable time to degrade, but the oil is already remediated within a day
    from the time of oil-spill. Visible oil may be compared to healed oil similar to ghee(best oil one
    can use as food or fuel).

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • The oil leak from the sinking

    The oil leak from the sinking cargo vessel MSC Chitra has been plugged with the Indian Coast Guard saying Operation Chitra has been successful and the ship has been stabilised. But nearly 800 tonnes of oil is already believed to have leaked out into the Arabian Sea and has been seen floating close to the coastline threatening marine life.

    There are eight main fuel tanks on board the ship and two of these tanks leaked tonnes of oil into the sea. Coast Guard helicopters have been spraying anti-dispersants to prevent the oil spill from spreading. A team from Holland has also been called in to help in containing the spill.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Compensation is going to do

    Compensation is going to do little to help the amount of people and creatures this has affected. I think the damage to the mangroves will have been enough to kill several different species off. It's a shame when incidents like this occur as the impact can usually be felt for decades.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • BP is such a joke…

    BP is such a joke… they should all be arrested along with the US govt. How long ago did they cap the leak? And how many legitimate claims are still “pending” from damages they suffered back in the beginning of the summer? I happen to know three people that were affected directly by BP’s shady PR tactics and manipulation of our laws, one of whom was a journalist who was almost arrested and charged with felonies for taking pictures of oil covered animals near the coast. Not only is it bad enough that thousands of fishers’ lively hoods are ruined for god knows how many years to come, they were paid a pathetic amount of money to clean up BP’s own mess. To add even more insult to injury, BP used Corexit 9527, which contains mainly 2-butoxyethanol, which is very toxic. You wouldn’t have to be a scientist to know that, since in the first week of using it over 70 fisherman ended up at the hospital. Of course if you even inquired about this, I’m sure the govt (which is pretty much owned by oil companies) would deal with you quite quickly, let alone taking pictures of it in an attempt to run a story on it. My friend who almost got arrested on felony charges simply went out on a boat into about 30 feet of water and used a water proof cam to photograph one of the many oil plumes forming at the bottom of the surface (which BP vehemently denies). Now here comes the hilarious part. He switched the film in his camera with a blank one in the event they were stopped by police, which they were as soon as they got back to shore. They let him go but still took his name down, and what do you know... later that night, 2 guys wearing black hoodies attempted to break into his house. He caught pics of them on his home security system. Hmm, I wonder who paid these guys to break in and what they were after? Definitely not BP or our govt, that’s for sure!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply