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Chennai oil spill: Authorities grapple with cleanup as ecological disaster looms

As authorities battle an oil spill off Chennai, the Kamarajar Port has come under fire from fishermen and green activists for allegedly downplaying the gravity of the situation. The coastline now faces a serious ecological threat.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2017 13:23 IST
Aditya Iyer
Chennai oil spill
A member of the Pollution Response Team collects a sample of an oil spill from boulders at the coast, a day after an oil tanker and an LPG tanker collided off Kamarajar Port in Ennore, in Chennai on January 30, 2017. (AFP Photo)

A rapidly spreading oil spill off the Ennore coast has impacted the livelihoods of fishermen, threatened the aquatic biodiversity along the coast, and raised serious questions about the authorities tackling the mess.

After two tankers collided on Saturday leading to the spill, the Kamarajar Port Ltd released a statement claiming that there was “no damage to the environment like oil pollution,” a position reiterated by union shipping minister Pon Radhakrishnan who visited the area on Sunday.

By Tuesday, as oil slicks spread as far as Thiruvanmiyur beach, Tamil Nadu fisheries minister D Jayakumar stated that “1 tonne of oil had leaked,” and that the situation was under control.

Subsequent reports by the Coast Guard have since estimated that over 20 tonne of oil have spilled into the Bay of Bengal, while the latest report from the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) says that 40 tonne of oil sludge and 27 tonne of oil mixture and water have been removed as of Thursday morning.

The INCOIS report also mentioned that the spillage has polluted 24.06 km of the Chennai’s coastline. While it was estimated to have affected a stretch of 7.1km of coastline on Saturday, it spread to 13.1km stretch by Sunday.

Over 500 workers, from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, Kamarajar Port, and local fishermen, have been working alongside the Coast Guard in an effort to control the increasingly large oil spill.

For the fishermen, the unchecked oil spill has been exacerbated by the slow response of the authorities, as well as a lack of coordination among them.

“They didn’t remove it immediately, and so now it has spread across all beaches, including Marina,” says K Bharati, leader of the Fishermen’s Welfare Association in South India. “Now it’s mixed with the sand to create this semi-solid substance, and has severely damaged the ocean.”

The lack of responsibility on the part of the authorities, and the poor coordination between the Coast Guard and the Kamarajar Port has also worsened the oil slick, according to Bharati. “This could have been contained easily,” he says. “Instead, you have Coast Guard officials who haven’t been informed of the situation by the Port, and who aren’t working effectively with them.”

“The primary problem is that Kamarajar Port gave out wrong information on the first day,” says environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman. “What was needed was a credible assessment of the situation, not an incorrect statement that led to a complacent attitude.”

The ecological disaster is only matched by the lack preparedness on the part of the authorities.

“The Coast Guard are doing the best they can given that they were provided incorrect information,” says Nityanand. “What is more frustrating is that the agencies involved, the Pollution Control Board and the Kamarajar Port, clearly don’t have any emergency plan for these types of situations.”

A history of oil spills in India
  • August 2010: Merchant ships MSC Chitra and MV Khalija 3 collided off Mumbai’s coast, spilling more than 800 tonnes of oil. All fishing activities were suspended for 15 days near the area after the catastrophic spill.
  • January 2011: ONGC’s Mumbai-Uran Trunk pipeline burst 80 km away off Mumbai’s coast. The spill had reportedly spread to around 4 square km from the site of the leak.
  • October 2013: Another oil spill was reported from the Mumbai-Uran Trunk after a rupture in the pipeline. ONGC said a few days later the leak was fixed.
  • August 2013: Officials had reported an oil spill in the coastal areas of Gulf of Khambhat in Gujarat. The leak was from an ONGC pipeline near Bhadbhut village of the district.

“In a city which has no less than three ports in close proximity to each other this lack of coordination is indicative of a pan-Indian problem - there is no concept of a safety culture,” he adds.

The longer that oil slicks are allowed to spread increases the difficulty in containing them. This is because the oil breaks up and forms smaller slicks which prolong containment efforts.

For the fishermen, the last five days has seen significant financial losses. Not only are they unable to go out and fish, but rumours of polluted and unsafe catches have meant that their fish markets have been uncharacteristically empty since Saturday. “We’ve submitted a complaint to the fisheries ministry demanding compensation for us,” says Bharati.

The visible sludge of oil along the coastline at Ernavoor, north Chennai. (V Srinivasulu/HT Photo)

According to Nityanand, what the response has shown is how unaccountable the agencies have been. “We’ve been conducting these post-mortem reports after disasters for several years now, with no results,” he says. “Who was sacked after the 2015 floods? No one. And I doubt anyone will be after this,” he says, pointing out that the Pollution Control Board has yet to file a complaint against the Kamarajar Port.

The port authorities have refused to answer questions about its handling of the oil spill.

The real ecological damage may not be seen for a few months. “The fish we’ve caught now are safe because they live beyond the area the oil has spread,” says Bharati. “But the damage to their eggs - and to the other species that live on and near the shore - will only be seen in a few months time.”