Oil Spill
[Representational Image]Wikimedia Commons

Around 60 tonnes of oil sludge has been collected so far while another 20 tonnes is believed to be still floating in the sea along the beach near Chennai's Ennore suburb, five days after a collision between two cargo ships near the Kamarajar Port Ltd (KPL) led to major oil spill polluting the coastline.

Over 30 tonnes was collected from the Rama Krishna Nagar Kuppam beach at Ennore alone.

The mishap happened on January 28 when MT BW Maple flying under an Isle of Man flag  was leaving KPL after having emptied Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), while MT Dawn Kanchipuram, which was filled with petroleum oil lubricant, was sailing towards the Ennore Port.

Clean-up operation under way

"It will take at least two days to clear most of the slick at Ennore, where a collision between two ships caused the spill. It may take longer until the entire city coastline is secured.... Cleaning of the rocks that are coated with oil slick will commence once the shoreline is cleaned," Commandant Pradeep B Mandal told the Times of India.

The oil spill spread across almost 34 kms up to Vettuvankeni due to the southern current.

The Indian Coast Guard, in a release, said that "approximately 40 tonnes of oil sludge and 27 tonnes of oil and water mixture were collected and was being dispatched to Kamaraj Port Trust" and that around 1,025 personnel from several agencies of the government have been continuously working towards cleaning the coastline following the oil spill.

The Coast Guard also conducted cleaning operations at Marina and Elliot beaches in Chennai.

Helicopters from the Indian Coast Guard conducted regular sorties to monitor the oil slick and identified "stagnated thick oil slick about 100 metres wide near Ennore and 500 x 500 metres near Kasimedu harbour".

A ship, Varada, and a chopper with equipement to control pollution has already sailed out to clear the oil slick.

Personnel from the Coast Guard, Fire and Rescue department, Chennai Port Trust, Kamaraj Port Trust, Chennai Corporation, Highways, and Chennai Metro Water have been working tirelessly on the operation, which is near completion. Several volunteers from engineering colleges and fishermen communities have also joined the operation.

"We worked almost the entire day. The oil mixed with sand was put in sacks and transported by trucks... For now, it is being sent to the KPL to keep it in storage. Usually, such oil is sent to the refinery but in this case, it cannot since it has saline content," Kumar, a conservancy worker, told the Hindu.

Fishing Industry Hit

The fishing industry has been badly hit because people have not been buying fish thinking it is unsafe for consumption, forcing fishermen to stay away from the sea for about four days now and are expected to not venture into the sea for at least another week. 

"There have been heavy losses. I have not sold fish even worth Rs 2,000. Nobody turned up over the last three days," Shakila told NDTV adding that she has Rs 30,000 worth of fish, but no customers to buy them.

However, Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar and senior government officials inspected the area following reports that people were not buying seafood since several fish died due to the oil spill.

The minister dismissed such reports as untrue and said that people "need not fear to consume fish. It is our duty to allay such fears. Therefore, we took some samples of the dead fish taken from Ennore, Marina, Thiruvanmiyur areas. There were reports of oil slick. The results from laboratory have clarified that it is safe to consume".

Environmental Effects

The oil spill has affected marine life as well, with several sea turtles having died due to the incident. It has got environmentalists worried. "The spill will affect oxygen supply to these aquatic species. More species will die. But we are not able to assess the loss as we don't have a base line," environmentalist Emily Titus told NDTV.

The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services in Hyderabad has been keeping  track on the oil spill trajectory through computer models to study the longterm effects of the spill on the environment, TOI reported.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) also issued notices to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the Central Pollution Control Board on Wednesday regarding the oil spill.

The bench, while hearing an application in the matter, took note of how the spill was being managed and has sought a report on how it could be tackled and remediated in a scientific manner, the Hindu reported. The next hearing of the case is on February 20.

Cleaning Operation Being Done Manually

According to NDTV, the cleaning operation is being done manually because the super sucker vacuum truck, which was used to remove several tonnes of sludge, was not as efficient as manual force. The mixture of oil and water, which was removed by the truck belonging to Metrowater, consisted if only 30% of the total oil spill.

"We've tried all kinds of technology and found manual clearing is the only possibility. We've deployed more people," MA Bhaskarachar, Chairman of KPL, said.

Therefore, over a thousand personnel and volunteers decided to clean the oil spill manually. However, the spill has been thickening with every passing day. Boulders along the beach in Ennore have blocked the shore, due to which it is impossible for waves to naturally wash the oil ashore. 

Meanwhile, experts from Anna University in Chennai have deployed a state-of-the-art unmanned vehicle to map the oil spill.

"Through the analysis we can locate the spill areas and decide on effective measures," Dr K Senthil Kumar, Director of the Centre for Aerospace Research, told the news channel.

Volunteers Working Without Protective Gear

Volunteers have been working to clean the oil spill without wearing any protective gear, thereby risking their own lives. They have been removing contaminated soil, pollutants from the sand without protective gear. They only wear orange gloves and black boots and use buckets to take out the oil while standing waist deep in the sludge.

Amavasai, one of the workers, told NDTV: "It smells bad and sticks to our hand, but we are happy to work for the people."

Working without any protective gear could prove fatal for workers and volunteers. Several of them are already suffering the consequences of exposing themselves to hazardous chemicals. 

"The smell from the oil is irritating my eyes constantly. I have developed boils all over my hands as well," Ennore Cooperative Society President Venkatesh told News Minute, adding that neither the Coast Guard nor the port authorities issued any warning against working without protective gear.

"In fact, the port Chairman came today and encouraged us to help the authorities clean the water," Venkatesh further added.

Port authorities have not issued a formal advisory warning those residing near the coastline against the toxic crude oil that has spilled into the sea, despite environmentalists consistently stressing the harmful effects of the spill. Longterm exposure to toxic chemicals can cause cancer skin allergies, irritation of eyes and respiratory diseases.

According to the International Labour Organisation, those working in an environment consisting of toxic substances, must be informed of the hazardous effects in advance. They must also be provided with respiratory protection, gloves, aprons and goggles.

Fishermen, who have been working along with the authorities, are seeing this as a way to earn their bread and butter since they cannot go out fishing. 

"We have to remove the oil so that we can get on with our lives. People are scared to buy fish from us. Let these people at least earn some money this way. Since the oil is in salt water, nothing will happen to us," SA Vignesh, Meenavar Makkal Munani Katchi chief, told News Minute.