What Caused The Oil Spill?
Miscalculation of distance is the most likely suspect. The two ships, British owned MT BW Maple (LPG Tanker) and Indian owned MT Dawn Kanchipuram (Oil/Chemical Tanker) collided. According to experts, the fuel tank ruptured, leaking Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) into the waters early Sunday. Identifying the grade of oil is the first step to working out a solution.
The Delay In Fixing The Problem:
Reports suggest that MT Dawn Kanchipuram waited two days at the outer harbor while the Kamarajar Port authorities took a decision to allow her inside to ‘discharge the oil,’ according to the owners of the vessel.
However, the port authority’s retort according to media reports was, ‘“We wanted them to transfer the cargo to another ship, but they expressed inability. We had also sought an undertaking from the vessel but that was delayed by nearly a day. The Shipping Ministry and the Director General of Shipping were informed, and after getting clearance from DG Shipping, the ship was inspected for its seaworthiness. This took another half a day,” the official said.’
While an investigation report is being filed what we do know is the delayed response led to more oil leaking into the water.
Couple this with insufficient information from Port authorities and downplay of the extent of the spill and you have a crises that has been exacerbated by this incident.
Arun Krishanamurthy from the Environmentalist Foundation of India says this is the ‘last nail in the coffin’. Ennore is a busy industrial zone. Two commercial ports have sea-traffic moving constantly through the waters. The Ennore Thermal Power Station and other industrial businesses have added to the pollution of the water body in this area.
Three estuaries, Cooum, Adyar and Kortalaiyar have been polluted with urban drainage, industrial wash-ups and pollutants. This oil spill has aggravated an existing pollution problem in this area according to Krishnamurthy.
What We Know About The Fuel:
Heavy fuel like in the case of this leak are very dangerous to humans, environment and sea-life as it contains compounds like benzene and high concentrations of sulphur. “When oil is in the water, it initially floats…” says Capt. Sandeep Kalia Co-Chairman of Oil Spill India. However, the oil doesn’t float for long, “it starts [moving] toward the seabed. It cannot be immediately removed and has long term effects,” says Kalia.
Such incidents result in large scale clean-up efforts of the shorelines, rescuing animals that are covered in oil and cleaning the waters to protect marine-life. According to Kalia the costs for this cleanup will run into crores.
The current cleanup is manual, which means volunteers and professional cleaners are loading buckets of sludge into drums that will then get sold to traders.
“There must be a facility at ports to collect this, but it isn’t there,” says Kalia.
The collected sludge is sold to traders who purify it to extract oil and water and re-sell the products. Environmentalists and experts have advised that sale of seafood should be put on hold until a thorough cleanup of the water is completed and a through survey done by the appropriate bodies. For the fishermen who venture deep into the ocean, there is a chance for a better catch, but Kalia advices it’s best to stay away from consuming any sea food.
Can I Go To The Beach?
The answer is no. Why? Toxic fumes even in small doses are harmful. Curious onlookers and locals need to stay away from the beach as changing wind directions and currents are constantly moving the oil slick toward the coastlines. Inhaling these fumes can be detrimental.
What Do You Need To Cleanup An Oil Spill?
For manual cleaning, like this one, it is important to provide everyone with correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that shields the body from head to toe. Safety goggles, gloves, masks and boots are a must. The reason for this is the toxicity in the water and air. Inhaling fumes or contact with the water can cause irritation, respiratory and skin issues.
First responders need to be careful while working in such hazardous environments. One study showed that responders cleaning up oil spills require lifetime health care support because of the health issues that arise from exposure to such hazardous work environments.
“Impeccable cleanup can go to a month,” says Kalia whose team of surveyors are on the ground making assessments of the damage.
Kalia suggests that responders apply a generous amount of coconut oil over the body and all exposed parts, except the eyes before stepping out to the areas for cleaning. “Even if it comes in touch with skin, it won’t penetrate the skin,” he says, as the oil will act as a barrier.
Over a thousand conservancy workers are doing the cleanup job according to Krishnamurthy who says that volunteers are makeup a small percentage in comparison to the main folks who are doing the heavy work.
Inadequate training for such disasters is also to blame for improper treatment of this issue. Kalia says people are not trained sufficiently to handle such crises. ‘Regular government employees are not trained, but are trying to help,’ according to Krishnamurthy.
Other Methods Include:
• Booms: these are long buoyant devices usually made from plastic, metal or other materials which span about three feet above the water. They are attached to an underwater ‘skirt’ which helps contain the oil from spreading.
• In-situ burning: responders would corral some of the oil with the help of a fire-proof boom and light the oil on fire. This method works best if the oil is fresh and the weather is calm.
• Dispersants: using either boats or aircrafts, chemicals are thrown into the oil slick to disperse it into the water.
• Skimmers: these are boats and devices that can remove surface oil with the help of the booms before the oil spreads to sensitive areas like beaches or reefs and the coastlines.
• Biological agents: adding bacteria to the oily water creates a process called biodegradation which breaks up the chemicals in the oil into harmless substances like carbon dioxide and fatty acids. Fertilizing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous help. (Source: Livescience)
What’s The Result of This Oil Spill?
The impact of this oil spill is large. Why? People, water and sea-life have and will be affected. Over a hundred deaths of Olive Ridley sea-turtles have occurred in the past five days. This is the nesting season for these turtles whose death rates have grown since news of the oil leak. The Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, which frequent these waters could also be affected in the coming days.
The Need Of The Hour:
The first fix needs to be containment of the spill. The next important fix is to get technological solutions to clear up the water. The right type of equipment and methods will help make the cleanup process efficient and less time consuming, thereby saving more and killing less.
*Dipti Kumar is a faculty member of National School of Journalism, Bangalore