From collision to cover up The inside story of the Chennai oil spill

A fisherman surveys the aftermath of the January 28th collision between two tanker vessels off the Chennai coast.


At 3:30 am on January 28, the BW Maple, a gas carrier carrying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from Ras Laffan in Qatar, eased past the breakwaters of the Kamarajar Port, picking up speed as it headed out into the open waters of the Bay of Bengal.

The sea was calm, the wind minimal, and the temperature was an easy 24 degrees Celsius. The Maple, manned by an Indian captain Vinod Sahadevan with a mixed Indian and Filipino crew, was headed further up the coast to Vishakhapatnam.

The previous weekend, it had berthed at Kamarajar, a busy east-coast port near Chennai that handles vessels loaded with the primary elements that power India’s economy: gas, oil, iron-ore, coal.

Out at sea, another tanker, the MT Dawn Kanchipuram, laden with 32,813 tonnes of petroleum lubricant, had slowed down as it approached Kamarajar’s harbour “channel” — the deep passage carved into the sea-bed to allow ships to enter port without running aground.

The Maple was in the channel as well, and was travelling at 10.2 knots (about 19 km/hr) when, at 3:38 am, it slowed, and veered off course. Real-time data from Kamarajar Port’s Vessel Traffic Management System (VTMS) shows the harbour-bound Kanchipuram turned as well, suggesting that the two massive ships had suddenly realised they were headed for a collision.

As minutes ticked by, both vessels took desperate, but un-coordinated, evasive action, sliding inexorably closer even as they tried to get out of each other’s way.

An excerpt from the Kamarajar Ports Vessel Traffic Management System shows the collision between the BW Maple (moving left to right) and the Dawn Kanchipuram (right to left) on January 28 2017. The footage has been sped up and the time stamp on the top left is in GMT (5:30 hours behind Indian Standard Time).

At 3:45 am, the Maple crashed prow-first into the side of the Kanchipuram.

“I saw the two ships collide,” said Arikam, a young fisherman who was out on his boat that morning. “Oil gushed into the sea like blood from a wound.”

When dawn broke at a little after six, the sky was abuzz with coastguard helicopters, the port swarmed with tugs and patrol boats. Three kilometres from the coast, floated the Kanchipuram — engines immobilised — leaking dark waxy bunker oil into the swirling waters.

As the currents carried the oil to beaches along Tamil Nadu’s eastern coast, Kamarajar Port Ltd issued a statement that would symbolise the company’s response to the calamity.

“There is no damage to the environment like oil pollution,” read the six-sentence statement, “All top officials of port closely monitoring and the situation is under control.”

Oil spills in India since 1982

Hover over a block to see details

Tier 1 (Less than 700 tonnes)

Tier 2 (Between 700 and 10,000 tonnes)

Tier 3 (More than 10,000 tonnes)

Not assessed

Source: Indian coast guard

Cover up

A fortnight after the Dawn Kanchipuram spilt an estimated 75 tonnes of bunker oil — a heavy petroleum residue used to start ship engines — port authorities are yet to explain how two enormous tankers, each freighted with inflammable hydrocarbons, could collide three kilometres off the Chennai coastline.

Port officials have prevaricated on everything from the quantity of oil spilt and the time needed for cleanup, to the long-term effects on the region’s fragile and besieged marine ecology.

What follows is the first detailed account of the collision and its aftermath, revealing a series of oversights and operational missteps that put India’s eastern coast at peril.

“This is a massive screw up,” said Abhijit Singh, who heads the Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Maritime Policy Initiative. “Something isn’t adding up. The initial reaction was very tardy and there was an attempt to hush up.”

How the oil spread

10 km

Location of oil spill and collision

of MT Maple and MT Dawn vessels

3.45am, Jan.28 |


Feb. 2 |30 KM affected



Feb. 3 |35 KM affected



Feb. 4 |37 KM affected



Feb. 5 |43 KM affected



Source: Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services and Indian Coast Guard

The errors began as soon as the Maple left its berth. At Kamarajar Port, like elsewhere in the world, specialist navigators, called pilots, accompany large ships out to sea.

But according to a police report filed by A.K. Gupta, the port’s Director for Marine Services, the Maple let go of her pilot, V. Karunanidhi, well before his designated disembarkation point as Capt. Sahadevan was confident of navigating the ship by himself.

M.A. Bhaskarachar, Chairman and Managing Director of Kamarajar Port, said Karunanidhi continued to monitor the Maple’s progress and even messaged the Maple at 3:24 am to say: you are going to collide, be careful.

It is unclear if the Maple acknowledged this message. The ship stayed its course and continued to pick up speed until it collided, 20 minutes later, with the Kanchipuram at 3:45 am.

“Every harbour has its own idiosyncrasies. Captains, irrespective of experience, must rely on a pilot – those are the rules.”

- Former harbour pilot

Once the collision occurred, the port’s pollution response fell apart.

The authorities claimed only one tonne oil had spilt, and then said 20 tonnes after the Coast Guard issued a separate statement. The final quantity of spilt oil, officials privately admit, could rise to 100 tonnes.

“The port should handle a spill of this size, but couldn’t. We came in because they asked us for help,” said a senior officer in the Coast Guard. “By then much of the damage was done.”

One plausible scenario is that the port panicked, sought to suppress news of the incident, and called the Coast Guard only once they realised the scale of the spill.

So when did port authorities learn of the accident?

“We cannot say anything, investigation is underway,” said A.K. Gupta, Kamarajar’s Director for Marine services. But a press release states the Coast Guard was informed at 6:15 am and spill containment measures began at 7 am, three hours after the incident.

This may seem like a short time, but experts disagree.

“If a tanker is involved, you need to send a team in half an hour,” said Singh, from the ORF, “These are standing operating procedures, it is not a discretionary decision.”

In 2012, the Indian government hired Saab, a Swedish military supplier, to set up a network of radars, radio receivers and cameras — called the National Automatic Identification System (NAIS) — to improve coastal surveillance in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attack.

“The system can track anomalies and send alerts if a ship suddenly veers off course, or if a ship suddenly stops or collides," said an expert who has worked with the system, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive technology.

“The coastguard has a guy tracking the NAIS at all times,” said a retired Coast Guard official, noting that the NAIS has a centre in Chennai. “In this day and age, no one needs to inform anyone about anything, just look at your damn screen.”

Clean up

When oil hits the sea, its surface is quickly dispersed by the wind, while sea currents spread the lower layers in contact with the water. This twin action creates a large, ever-expanding film of oil called a “slick”.

Along the shore, the oil mixes with sand and debris to form a thick viscous sludge that gradually oxidizes into a toxic brown mass that experts like to call “chocolate mousse”.

Fuel oil, of the sort spilt in Chennai, is a sticky viscous liquid that is hard to disperse at sea, and forms a toxic brown sludge when it is washed ashore.

The longer the oil stays in the water, the more it spreads, and the harder it becomes to clean. It was imperative that the Kanchipuram be brought to port as soon as possible.

It took authorities three days to find the stricken ship a mooring berth, as authorities were worried that if the ship were to sink in the harbour, it could block off the entire port.

Bunker oil, or fuel oil, of the sort spilt by the Kanchipuram, is a thick viscous mix of highly toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons that impact the pulmonary, digestive, renal and dermal systems of all living beings. It affects nearly every vital organ.

Fuel oil’s stickiness makes it hard to pump out or skim from the sea surface. In Chennai, municipal authorities used pumps meant for floodwaters to suck up the oil.

The absence of proper equipment is surprising, given that Kamarajar Port had received specialised oil-slick equipment worth Rs. 3 crore only four months prior to the accident. In an interview, A.K. Gupta, the Kamarajar official, refused to say if it was used.

When the municipal pumps failed, authorities fell back on thousands of poorly equipped workers armed with little more than plastic buckets.

“The manual scooping and carrying with buckets would be the best if you don’t have high-end skimmers,” said Dr. Indumathi Nambi, head of the Environment and Water Resources at IIT Madras.

The absence of proper equipment has compromised the safety of those tasked with cleaning the oil spill.

The men were called “volunteers” — but many were government employees pressed into action for as little as Rs.500 a day, with little concern for their safety.

“Volunteers cannot substitute for an emergency response team,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based environmentalist, “It is a nasty thing what we did by sending uninformed, untrained and unprotected people to the job.”

As cleanup efforts faltered, the Coast Guard resorted to using Oil Spill Dispersant (OSD), a chemical compound that breaks the slick down into oil droplets.

But OSD is toxic too, which is why it is rarely deployed near coasts, and that too only after careful analysis of the oil slick. In Chennai, the Coast Guard used over 2,800 litres of concentrated OSD without even knowing what they were dispersing.

“In this case, dispersants will not work because of the density of the oil,” said Nambi, the scientist at IIT.


Two weeks into the operation, the oil slick’s most visible traces have largely disappeared, but environmentalists fear that the damage has just begun.

The shallow seas are home to dolphins and whales, and the beaches, now slick with oil, serve as nesting sites for the vulnerable Olive Ridley Turtle.

Government authorities continue to put out disinformation.

“We have spoken with the experts,” said Malini Shankar, Director General, Shipping. “Fortunately the turtles have not been affected by the oil spill.”

Government officials claim that the oil spill will not affect vulnerable species like the Olive Ridley turtle, but conservationists already see signs that the region's sensitive ecosystem has been disrupted.

Conservationists disagree.

“We cannot be sure if any of the turtles have died until we do a post mortem,” said Shravan Krishnan of Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, one of Tamil Nadu’s oldest marine life advocacy organisations. Apart from turtle deaths, Krishnan fears hatchlings might feed on the oil sediments, which could affect an entire generation of turtles.

And turtles aren’t the only species at risk. When oil coats the sea, it cuts off the supply of oxygen for organisms that live close to the surface. It damages the feathers of birds, and hampers their ability to dry themselves.

Once dispersed, oil droplets remain in the marine ecosystem for months and even years. Oil that sinks to the sea floor may settle on plankton that is food for fish, which are in turn eaten by bigger fish, and so the toxins travels up the food chain, their concentrations amplifying with every link.

“The notion that you cannot eat fish now, but after a few days it will be okay is a wrong notion,” said Dr Nambi. “Bioaccumulation of toxins is a long-term phenomenon.”

On nightly turtle vigils, Krishan has already found that crabs, once visible in large numbers, have disappeared. Marine food webs are intricate and interconnected, and include countless species, including us humans.

Soon the Dawn Kanchipuram and Maple will steam out of Kamarajar Port, the experts will conduct their inquiry, but millions of tiny droplets of toxic oil will haunt the coasts of Chennai for years to come.

Graphics by Anand Katakam and Gurman Bhatia. Web production by Gurman Bhatia.