How North Chennai's Kamarajar Port Made a Bad Oil Spill Worse

In spite of set protocols, an initial denial that a spill had occurred at all, followed by a failure to inform the coast guard, put the port's lack of preparedness on display.

A sheet of oil seen floating in the Bay of Bengal, about 10 km from the site of the collision. Credit: Pooja Kumar

A sheet of oil seen floating in the Bay of Bengal, about 10 km from the site of the collision. Credit: Pooja Kumar

Chennai: Black balls of oil line the seashore. Sea walls wear a darker look, only to be dotted with workers scooping oil into buckets. Tanks overflowing with sludge wait for trucks to carry them away. Small boats and fishing nets stay covered in black goo. “The smell is unbearable, our eyes burn and itch while removing the oil. But we have to continue as the oil needs to be removed before we can get back to work and get on with our lives,” says Kannan, a fisherman from Ennore.

A week has passed since two ships, MT BW Maple and MT Dawn Kanchipuram carrying LPG and petroleum oil lubricant, respectively, collided off Kamarajar Port Limited in North Chennai. The accident resulted in the spillage of bunker oil used by the ship into the Bay of Bengal. Even as Kamarajar Port authorities and the minister of state for road transport & highways, shipping, Pon. Radhakrishnan, maintained that there was little or no oil spilled as a result of the collision, the fact that a disaster of immense proportions had struck was clear when a rising Sun revealed an unnatural and revolting patina on the sea’s surface. The petrochemical oil used for shipping operations is a sticky, viscous brown sludge that moves in slicks, leaving behind small black oil beads known as tar-balls on the sand deposited by waves.

Ecological footprint  

An oil spill, no matter how big or small or where, is considered a serious threat to marine environment. Petrochemical oil contains several aromatic hydrocarbons, alkanes, xylenes and cycloalkanes, among other chemicals, that are known to be toxic for fish and humans alike. Floating oil can be lethal to animals that are found higher up the water column, such as sea turtles and dolphins that surface to breathe. India’s coastline is known for being a preferred nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles, a specie of sea turtles classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. And already, close to 40 turtles have washed ashore covered in oil since the spill, reports say.

Further, oil also poses a significant threat to sea birds that dive to catch fish. Now is the time of the year when migratory birds from all around the world, like Siberian cranes and flamingos, visit warmer climates. Heavy-oil messes with the hydrophobic properties of the birds’ feathers and reduces their ability to keep warm, exposing individuals to severe weather conditions and even death due to hyperthermia. Another problem posed by floating sheets of oily liquids is that they reflect sunlight, thus reducing the amount of light that percolates into the water. This stalls photosynthesis deeper down and affects the balance of the ecosystem.

And then, there’s more. Mud and clay particles present in the sea, along with the chemicals used in oil dispersants, get mixed together and settle in the form of heavy, oil-rich particles on the seabed. “This is a predicament for bottom-feeding organisms, especially commercially valuable species such as prawn and crabs whose primary habitat is the seabed,” Rahul Muralidharan, a marine biologist, told The Wire.“The presence of such acutely toxic chemicals in the fish could prove fatal to animals up the food chain,” said Rahul Muralidharan, a marine biologist.

Impact on livelihoods

Artisanal fishermen in Chennai are anticipating low fish catch this coming year. “Our sea is already under pressure; untreated sewage, industrial effluents and even petrochemical waste are being discharged into the sea every day,” says A. Venkatesh, a resident of Ennore. “This big oil spill is adding to the already existing problem.”

In North Chennai, effluents from the Manali petrochemical cluster and the North Chennai industrial cluster are regularly discharged through the estuary at Ennore. Within Chennai city, the Cooum and Adyar river estuaries carry effluents from various small industries and municipalities into the Bay of Bengal. Fisherfolk have blamed unmonitored discharges and regulations left unenforced for declining fish resources in near-shore waters.

And for those already reeling under the pressure of a declining catch, the oil spill has only made matters worse. “Our boats and nets have historically been stored on the seashore. Now, the oil has reached our beaches and has completely destroyed small boats and nets placed on the beach. In addition to losing livelihood for over a week, now we have to spend more money in replacing or repairing our gear before we set out to fish again,” rues Venkatesh. Underplaying issues such as these only worsens the impact it has on fisheries. The fishermen report that emergency disaster management plans failed to kick in as soon as the spill had been reported.

Kamarajar Port’s oil spill contingency plan identifies spill-containment as the first response. As stated in the environmental impact assessments conducted for developing various facilities within the port, any oil spill classified as tier II will have to be attended to by the state government, the coast guard and port authorities together. Moreover, the port’s Oil Spill Response Team (OSRT) is responsible for mobilising the first wave of mitigation efforts.

But in spite of these procedures, an initial denial that a spill had occurred at all, followed by a failure to inform the coast guard, only put the lack of the port’s preparedness on display. Emergency response containment was never expedited as the oil reached beaches close to 30 km south of the port within 24 hours.

The bigger picture

“Our coastal area can be a channel for global trade” – words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi uttered in his maiden speech in parliament. One aspect of India’s superpower aspiration mimics China’s model of port-led development. The coastal economic zones are said to be the drivers of development, especially since the primary agenda of ‘Make in India’ is to boost exports. This is lucrative only if manufacturing plans are proximate to ports, by extension coastal areas. The ambitious Sagarmaala project initiated by the Ministry of Shipping envisages the construction of new ports and the modernisation of existing ones. The maritime sector is expected to handle 1,758 million metric tons of cargo by the end of 2017 – against 976 million metric tons in 2012.

But this spill has exposed a sorry state of affairs, affording as it did a sneak peek into the amount of preparedness and accountability that agencies, such as the Kamarajar Port, the state pollution control board, the coast guard and the state Coastal Zone Management Authority, exhibit in a time of crisis. With the focus being on increasing coastal industries and trade, sea traffic is bound to grow, making accidents like the Maple and Dawn Kanchipuram collision more common. Given the state of affairs and if something of this kind where to happen again, will we be equipped to respond better in the future?

Pooja Kumar is a campaigner with the Chennai-based Coastal Resource Centre, working on issues of environmental justice.