Ennore oil spill: How to make a bad disaster worse

Irresponsible port authorities, unprepared disaster management systems and institutional failures have created an environmental crisis on the Chennai coast, the impact of which will be felt over months to come.

Disaster struck two nautical miles off Ennore’s Kamarajar port just before dawn on January 28 when two cargo ships–LPG-carrier** BW Maple bearing the flag of the UK’s Isle of Man and MT Dawn Kanchipuram, the latter loaded to the brim with petroleum oil and lubricants, collided due to poor inter-vessel communication. The LPG tanker, on its way out of the port, suffered a major dent. The incoming Dawn Kanchipuram was left with two holes that tore through it. Pregnant with oil and lubricants, the cargo ship released a considerable amount of the furnace oil stored for fuelling purposes** into the surrounding sea.

The Kamarajar Port Limited (KPL) downplayed the issue initially but the aftermath was hard to be concealed from the public eye. Even as the port authorities were denying the damage done to the environment, fishermen spotted slick floating on the water surface while a good amount of dense oil had begun to beach by the next day. The Indian Coast Guard sprang into action, removing tonnes of thick oil sludge from the beaches around Ennore. Armed with buckets and mugs, the local administration and volunteers pitched in and helped clean up the coast around Ennore. Thanks to the sluggish response of the administration, by the third day, the spill had already travelled on the waves for over 30 km south of the spill site leaving the port authorities and the coast guard neck deep in muck.

Kamarajar port’s contingency plan

The Environment Impact Assessment for the modification of the iron ore terminal at the Kamarajar port recognises the increased threat of oil spill the Tamil Nadu coast faces from the passing ships and lays down a three tier oil contingency plan, identifying organisations and fixing responsibility. According to the plan, a Tier-I spill which happens within the limits of the Kamarajar port will be the responsibility of the ship, the port authorities and the mutual aid agencies. Outside the port limits, a Tier–II spill, similar to the one at hand is the responsibility of the ship, the port authorities, the state government of Tamil Nadu and the Indian coast guard.

Media reports suggest that the port authorities were reluctant to acknowledge the spill and had initially informed the coast guard only about the collision with no mention of the oil spill. Though a contingency and disaster management plan is available on paper, the extremely sluggish response of port authorities has brought to question the efficacy and seriousness of the actual preparedness plan.

The incident is enveloped by a variety of lapses by different agencies involved—KPL for allowing the collision to happen, the imprudence on the part of KPL, the polluter, the district administration, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and the state coastal zone management authority with respect to post-collision response.

“The district administration is the coordinating agency responsible for executing the disaster management plan with the help of the Indian Coast Guard while TNPCB is the expert agency responsible for informing the administration and also taking action against the violators. Reliable first information was not available with top officials of the KPL admitting that they solely relied on the information received from the ship—accepting that they are either not prepared to verify what the polluter says or just trying to pass the buck around,” says environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman.

And, for any disaster response to be on point, different scenarios need to be played out and context-specific responses chalked accordingly, which apparently, was not done. Due to lack of adequate information, first response suffered drastically. Kamarajar port is responsible for mobilising immediate response teams. It claims to have the necessary equipment such as skimmers, booms and dispersants to deal with an oil spill. But booms and skimmers offer little help along rocky shores.

“Skimmers and booms help if the spill had occurred in the mid or the deep sea, not in nearshore waters and rocky beaches. Even a suction pump will not do. High-pressure hoses and the likes are required to deal with the situation at hand. While the Marina and Besant Nagar stretches might be relatively easier to clean, the rocky shores along Ennore present a very tricky situation,” adds Nityanand.

Due to the uncertainty around the actual quantity of the oil spill, the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) has drawn up a scenario for a 20-tonne spill and has predicted damage to over 29.52 km of the coastline. Out of the 20 tonnes, close to 12.6 tonne is expected to be beached while 6.5 tonne is likely to have gotten evaporated and one tonne would still be floating on the surface.

Ecology and economy

Irrespective of the scale of the spill, petrochemical oils contain paraffins, aromatic and polycyclic hydrocarbons in addition to trace elements such as copper, nickel and vanadium which are toxic to fish and humans alike. As the spill occurred close to the coast, the biggest impact would be on the pelagic fishes which thrive in shallow waters. Ecologist Sultan Ismail explains that it is not necessary for dead fishes to wash ashore to ascertain contamination; in many cases, the fish may have ingested toxic chemicals but would not have died from it. The contaminants tend to bioaccumulate with heavy chances of them getting transferred to humans when consumed.

Professor Ismail expresses deep anguish about the manner in which the government departments and the research institutes have responded. “The fisheries department and the many research institutions in the city should have taken the initiative to collect fish samples and conduct toxicity studies to quell rumours about safety,” he says. Similar concerns have been raised regarding the safety of desalination plants which function along the Chennai coast. High-pressure suction pumps are used to draw water into the plants which use reverse osmosis technology to convert seawater into drinking quality water. “Are these membranes capable of separating hydrocarbons mixed in the water? The government should come out with a comprehensive safety report regarding fish as well as water resources around affected areas.”

The massive ecological damage wreaked on the coast will reveal itself gradually over the coming months. Though it may be impossible to predict precise impacts, there is no denying that the ocean will be burdened by this incident. When the deposits reach the seabed slowly, the bottom-feeding organisms such as crabs and prawns are likely to be affected. “By the look of it, the oil appears very dense and may contain several trace elements. Even crude oil has traces of vanadium, iron and copper; and if the oil has been previously used, the impurities will be more and the impacts will be greater. Studies should be conducted to ascertain the nature, the composition and the possible impacts of the spilt material,” insists Ismail.

The thick film of oil which covers long stretches of the coast worries Saravanan Kasi, a fisherman from Urur Kuppam. The oil film tends to reduce the light penetrating into the waters, thereby affecting photosynthesis and the growth of planktons and micro-organisms which function as natural fish feed. “The past week has been challenging for fishermen all along the Chennai coast. Rates have dipped drastically as people are not ready to come out and buy fish yet. A basket of fish which usually sells for Rs 300 is now being auctioned at the market for Rs 120. The government has to conduct studies and come out with a categorical statement regarding safety. More importantly, we need the government to be transparent in its functioning and tell us what’s happening,” says Kasi.

R. Srinivasan from Kattukuppam in Ennore voices similar concerns. “People are reluctant to even buy dried fish, let alone fresh catch. Small- and medium-scale fishers have been hit very hard. Most have kept away from going into the sea as the cost of catching far exceeds returns. The Ennore Creek is seriously polluted as it is with effluents from thermal power plants being let into the water brazenly for years together. Such a disaster puts further strain on an already struggling ecosystem and livelihoods associated with it. No catch, no income,” he says.

From fishermen to environmentalists, everyone believes there is a lack of preparedness that has resulted in such a disaster. Despite possessing the technical know-how and the necessary infrastructure, the agencies across the board have been found to be seriously lacking in preparedness, coordination and execution. Unless this critical lacuna is fixed, the chances of a preventable incident escalating into a disastrous tragedy cannot be ruled out in the future.

[The article was first published on India Water Portal and has been republished here with permission. The original article can be viewed here.]

** The article has been corrected since it was first published here on February 13, 2017.

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