EXPLAINER: How bad was the Chennai Oil Spill

The ecological impact of the Chennai oil spill, believed to be massive, is still being assessed.

Local fishermen and marine life off the coast of Chennai are bearing the brunt of the oil spill resulting from collision between two oil tankers on early morning on Saturday last week. The accident between the ships happened off the coast of Ennore in Tamil Nadu, some 25 kms north of Chennai. It has been reported that a major clean-up operation didn’t begin right off the bat and the spilled oil reached Chennai before authorities swung into action.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board reportedly sent its first super suckers to the sight on Jan 31, nearly three days after the incident, according to a report by news agency Press Trust of India (PTI). Super sucker machines are usually meant for clearing silt. Before the machines were sent over to the spot, workers from India’s Coast Guard were photographed trying to clear the spill manually.

News channel NDTV reported on Thursday that the super-suckers brought in ended up pulling out more of water than oil, following which the Coast Guard fell back on the help of manual labour to clear the sea. A coast guard vessel Varada and a helicopter fitted with pollution control equipment also joined the cleaning up on Thursday.

Coast Guard ship Varada joined the clean-up ops today along with a helicopter fitted with pollution control equipment.

(Source: Twitter/ Puli Arason)

A local environmental activist, Nityanand Jayaraman, was quoted blaming the authorities for botching up the cleaning process by website The News Minute. In the aftermath of the spill, many of endangered local species of turtle, Olive Ridley, were found washed up on the shore. It was also reported that local fishermen were apprehensive about venturing into the sea fearing that the fish would have become contaminated. The overall effect on area’s marine life is unknown at this stage, but oil spills are known to cause extensive damage to marine creatures.

(Source: Twitter/LalitaaLaita)

The cleaning operation was reported to be in its final stages on Thursday evening, with most of the sludge having been cleared up.

Here is some more of what happened during the Chennai oil spill episode:

  • The delay in controlling the damage from the spill made the situation even worse. One of the first official reactions to the oil spill came on Jan 31 from the district collector of Tiruvallur, E Sundaravalli. Tamil Nadu’s Leader of Opposition MK Stalin was quoted as saying that the oil spill had led to a situation where the fish were facing death and the fishermen in the locality could not be put out to sea for fishing.
  • The impact of the spill on the marine ecology is expected to be huge, though it is still being assessed. Four turtles have been reportedly found washed up on the shores of Chennai until now. “The spill will affect oxygen supply to aquatic species. More species will die. But we are not able to assess the loss as we don’t have a base line,” Emily Titus, an environmentalist, was quoted as saying by NDTV.
  • The oil spill is being seen as a major setback to the local fishing industry as well. It is being reported that local fishermen have suffered falling sales on account of “rumours” about dead fish.
  • Human effort formed crucial effort of cleaning up in absence of relevant machinery. It was reported on Feb 1 that nearly 300 local volunteers and Coast Guard workers were rummaging for oil in the sea using buckets.
  • Mashable notes that oil spills are a rather common occurrence in Indian waters. An oil spill off the coast of Mumbai in 2013 resulted in more than 1,000 litres of oil leaked into the sea. Previously in 2010, a collision of two merchant vessels off Mumbai, too resulted in spilling of close to 800 tonnes of oil in the sea.
  • A report from the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) noted that 40 tonne of oil sludge and 27 tonne of oil mixture and water was removed from waters off Chennai until Thursday evening.