Oil blackens Marina, but Kamarajar port officials, shipping minister deny spill

The polluted waters due to the oil spill. (Photo | EPS)

The polluted waters due to the oil spill. (Photo | EPS)

Unprecedented scenes were witnessed on Monday on the shores of the Bay of Bengal from Bharathiyar Nagar near Ennore to Marina Light House, with tonnes of tar-like thick black oil allegedly leaked from one of the vessels that collided near Kamarajar Port two days ago, polluting several square kilometers of sea. The oil deposit has converted sandy beaches, including the Marina, into a rubbery ground, making it inaccessible to the public.

Oil Washed Ashore on The Marina, in Chennai on Monday | Romani Agarwal
When Express travelled on a fishing boat along the Marina beach stretch, several chunks of oil deposits were spotted among the waves.The biggest challenge was that both Kamarajar Port and the vessel that caused the disaster remained in denial, leaving the official machinery clueless about what they were dealing with. Minister of State (Shipping) Pon Radhakrishnan visited the port and observed that there were no spills/sheens in the area, claims a release from the port.The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board collected samples and sent them to a lab at IIT-M to ascertain the pollutant.

While corporation officials said they couldn’t issue an advisory until they know what the material is, they cautioned beach-goers against coming in contact with the water.

Meanwhile, the coast guard removed 4,000 litres of oil on Monday. Sources said a bio-degradable chemical would be used on Tuesday to solidify pollutant particles and deposits on the sea bed, to avoid loss of marine life.

What was initially termed as a minor incident turned into a major environmental hazard, threatening marine life and ecological balance.

Several stretches of the Bay of Bengal turned brown as tidal waves filled with thick layer of black oil hit the shores. Thousands of shallow water fishermen are up in arms after their gear was damaged by the oil and their catch went unsold due to bad odour.

In a bid to map the hotspots of disaster, Express travelled from Ennore to Marina. The scale of pollution was enormous. Bharathiyar Nagar in Ennore, KVK Kuppam, Kasi Vishalakshipuram, Kasimedu, Tiruvottiyur, Palagai Thotikuppam,  and Nochikuppam near Marina Light House are among the worst-hit.

Clearly, the oil float boom that was deployed by Kamarajar Port to arrest the seepage from MT Dawn Kanchipuram, which was carrying petrol and diesel, has failed. Inbound vessel MT Dawn Kanchipuram suffered damages when it collided with outbound vessel LPG/CBW Maple on Saturday.

Though the Coast Guard, along with other government agencies, has been manually removing the oil deposits from the sea shore, tonnes of pollutants travelled about 13 km south and impacted the Marina beach on Monday.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) officials said that the float boom could be used to remove lighter oil, but, in this case, the deposits were too thick to yield any result. So far, the coast guard has removed six to seven tonnes of oil and officials are still unable to estimate how much oil is still left.

The board officials said the collected oil will be transported to a waste oil recycler. “We have identified a recycler and the oil will be sent there as soon as the cleaning process is over. After proper scientific testing, the oil will be processed,” an official said. The Coast Guard conducted an aerial survey on Monday and sources told Express that several square kilometres of sea were found polluted.

Sources said that representatives of MT Dawn Kanchipuram vessel, which allegedly caused the oil spill, reportedly visited Bharathiyar Nagar and interacted with Coast Guard. However, the Coast Guard officials said the vessel management was yet to submit a report on quantum of oil spill.

On Tuesday, a bio-degradable chemical, which will solidify the pollutants and deposit them in the seabed, is likely to be sprayed.

While Express was conducting a reality check on the extent of pollution, the crew of a mechanised trawler operating in the deep sea said that thick layers of oil, measuring 10 metres in diameter, were found floating in large sections of the bay from 10 km into the sea off Marina to Thiruvanmiyur shore. As days passed by, the ship traffic turned the thick layer into tiny tar balls, which were found inside the dead fish gills that washed ashore near Broken Bridge. On any possible harm that fisherfolk could face, the officials said that it would be mostly unlikely, unless a person came into direct contact with the oil or was exposed to it for a long time.

Corporation Health Official Senthilnathan said that there did not seem to be any immediate effect that could be caused by the oil, but added that a proper assessment was needed to be done first. “We are not directly linked to this issue, but we can only advise or take precautionary action after the TNPCB submits an authentic report showing that the oil is toxic. But it is best not to swim in the area or stand too long in the water,” he advised.

Standard procedure breached?

Nityanand Jayaram, noted environmental activist, questioned the way the whole episode was handled and the rational behind Kamarajar Port official’s stand that there was no damage to the environment.

“Port has been irresponsible. Accidents do happen, but the emergency management should immediately kick-off. The incident shouldn’t be underplayed. I strongly suspect whether the standard operating procedure has been followed. First, they haven’t taken the spill seriously. The disaster management protocol is completely missing,” he said.

Meanwhile, an official statement from the port said that as per the instructions from DG Shipping and officials of Mercantile Marine Department (MMD), the discharge of cargo from MT Dawn Kanchipuram has commenced at 3 pm and berthing got completed by 7.30 pm. The vessel sustained breach in the space forward of accommodation between engine room and tanks. Also, it had some damage in the accommodation port side.

Cry for compensation grows

The cry for compensation among the fisherfolk kept growing. In Bharathiyar Nagar, there was a verbal dual between the local villagers and Coast Guard officials, which halted the clean-up drive for close to three hours on Monday afternoon.

The fishermen from surrounding villagers have stormed the place and said the clean-up shouldn’t be carried out until the compensation is paid. They alleged that their livelihood is lost at least for next six months. “We can’t use the fishing nets that are soaked in oil. Even the boats are greased with blankets of oil,” K Shankar, a fishermen leader from KVK Kuppam said.

However, they were pacified by the Coast Guard and police officials, who said the clean-up was being carried out for their own good and the issue of compensation was being taken up by the higher authorities.

The article appeared in The New Indian Express on 31st Jan 2016 – Read the original article here




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