Pollution from tarballs in Mumbai: Who is to blame for it?

MPCB, BMC, environment dept say no legal mandate to address issue; dearth of studies, lack of plan irk experts, citizens
Experts and citizens said the problem needs an urgent fix to curb the impact on marine ecology and public health. (HT File)
Experts and citizens said the problem needs an urgent fix to curb the impact on marine ecology and public health. (HT File)
Published on Sep 08, 2021 12:49 AM IST
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By Prayag Arora-Desai

Despite the visible problem of tarball pollution on city shores, officials from multiple government bodies – including the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the environment department – said they do not have the legal mandate to address the issue. This has drawn the ire of experts and citizens, who said that the problem needs an urgent fix to curb the impact on both marine ecology and public health.

The origin of these tarballs – blobs of weathered petroleum mixed with debris and sand – which have been showing up on shores between Gujarat and Karnataka for decades, is still ambiguous. A 2013 paper by the National Institute of Oceanography had linked tarballs found in south Gujarat to offshore drilling rigs in Bombay High.

A second paper in 2014 also came to similar conclusions about tarballs found in Goa. Bunker oil and ballast water discharged into the open sea can also lead to the formation of tarballs, which can be as small as coins or as large as footballs. In other instances, they may emanate naturally from seepages in the ocean bed.

In Mumbai, too, tarballs have been washing up on city beaches for several years during the monsoon, when strong onshore winds and changing currents bring them to shore. However, due to a dearth of publicly available studies, and the lack of any official response plan at central and state levels, experts can only venture calculated guesses as to where they come from – though there is an overwhelming anecdotal consensus that the primary source is offshore hydrocarbon exploration by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) at Bombay High oil fields. An ONCG spokesperson denied this allegation and declined to provide a comment this story.

But the origins of these pollutants are only half the concern. As Shaunak Modi, director of the Coastal Conservation Foundation (CCF), said, “We need to consider the impact this oil is having on both marine life and the general public. Oil, whether crude or processed, floats on the surface of the water, and there is no doubt that animals living in the uppermost column of the ocean are coming into contact with this material.”

Yashwant Sontakke, joint director (water), Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), referred to the occurrence as a “routine phenomenon”, and pointed out that it does not have a legal mandate to either monitor or resolve complaints of marine pollution.

“They are a natural occurrence, and even in developed countries, they are seen along the beaches. The only solution here is to actively clean them up, and that is the responsibility of the local administration where the pollution is reaching. At the moment, there is no national or state-level plan to tackle the issue,” he said.

Modi, who previously observed dead fish lying amid tar deposits in Mumbai, also recollected a recent incident when he was involved in rescuing a sea turtle covered in oil. Just four days ago, a finless porpoise (protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) was found dead on Juhu beach amid oil deposits.

“We can’t conclusively say that the porpoise died due to the tar, of course, but the state government, the maritime authorities and city administration need to initiate the first steps toward understanding the scale of the problem. Simply cleaning up the beach when the tarballs arrive is not a solution,” he said.

BMC said they have been cleaning up the deposits regularly in demand to citizens’ response, but emphasised that they, too, do not have any legal mandate for undertaking further steps.

Prithviraj Chavan, assistant municipal commissioner at K-West ward (Andheri), did not respond to requests for comment. A junior official, on the condition of anonymity, said, “BMC’s job is not pollution control. Let us assume that the tarballs are coming from the crude oil industry or from ships. We do not have the power to fine them. That is the job of the maritime authorities or the pollution control board. I can’t be sure, but if it was in our power, we would have already taken action against them.”

The environment department, meanwhile, said that the responsibility to address pollution from tarballs lies with MPCB.

“The right authority to tackle this problem is MPCB, which comes under the environment department. It does not directly come under my purview,” said Narendra Toke, director, environment and climate change department.

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Thursday, October 21, 2021