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Crying over spilt oil

Divya Karthikeyan | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on February 17, 2017
Slippery slope: Contingency workers attempt to clear the oil spill at Ernavur beach, in north Chennai, following the collision of two cargo ships at Ennore port. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

Slippery slope: Contingency workers attempt to clear the oil spill at Ernavur beach, in north Chennai, following the collision of two cargo ships at Ennore port. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh   -  BusinessLine

Dirtying hands Many of the workers and volunteers
helping clear the oil slick had no protective gear

Dirtying hands: Many of the workers and volunteers helping clear the oil slick had no protective gear

Not in safe water : A fisherman helps a turtle return to sea after it was washed ashore in the aftermath of an oil spill off the Kamarajar Port in Ennore, Chennai. Photo: R Ravindran

Not in safe water : A fisherman helps a turtle return to sea after it was washed ashore in the aftermath of an oil spill off the Kamarajar Port in Ennore, Chennai. Photo: R Ravindran   -  The Hindu

The clean-up is far from over and no one really knows how much oil has mixed into the sea off Chennai. But the authorities are jumping the gun with offers of compensation

On January 28, MT BW Maple was leaving Chennai’s Kamarajar Port after emptying liquefied petroleum gas just as MT Dawn Kanchipuram, loaded with petroleum oil lubricant, was pulling in to berth at the Ennore port. The ships collided. On February 3, the mishap was blamed on a misunderstanding between the pilots of the two vessels.

A clean-up was launched at Tiruvallur, Chennai and Kancheepuram districts; more than 5,700 people worked at various sites including Ernavur, Chennai Fishing Harbour, Marina Beach, Besant Nagar, Kottivakkam, Palavakkam, Neelankarai and Injambakkam beaches.

Compensation before probe

“Compensation first, and investigation next,” declared Malini Shankar, Director General of Shipping, Mumbai. “We’re looking at how best we can approach this from humanitarian grounds, and compensate those who have lost livelihoods.” The clean-up cost incurred by the Coast Guard will be taken into account. Fishermen’s societies will present their reports to an insurance board constituted by the shipping directorate and compensation will be paid accordingly. (There is no timeline, though, because the inquiry has to be completed first.)

While the focus on compensation has been welcomed, marine experts are questioning how can there be compensation without a primary investigation?

Kochi-based maritime lawyer VJ George, who has handled several oil spill cases in the past, explains how it works. “The DG in Mumbai is the main authority under the Merchant Shipping Act. But you have the Maritime Mercantile Officer who is also responsible. He has to impose all the liabilities and compensation, and if the owners don’t turn up, the vessel can be detained.” In the Chennai case, the DG assured mediapersons on February 6 that the insurer and owner were cooperating with the authorities, unlike in the case of the Mumbai spill in 2010 where the owner and insurer did not take any responsibility.

The problem with hastening to compensate the affected ahead of an investigation is that the shipping companies can use it as a pretext to lower their dues to the government. “The primary intention of any lawyer in such cases is to minimise compensation. So a report has to be produced. The cost is not determined by just the salvage,” George says. If the owners don’t respond, we as citizens will have to move the High Court, he says. “At the end of the day, everything will be settled,” George reasons, adding that a settlement should never be the primary aim in these cases.

Lessons learnt?

Shipping DG Shankar brushed aside some of the questions swirling around the environmental impact of the spill.

“I’ve handled the Mumbai oil spill, and don’t want that repeated here. But when we look back, we’ll realise that Ennore is nothing in comparison,” she said.

In August 2010, the collision of merchant ships MSC Chitra and MV Khalija 3 off Mumbai’s coast led to 800 tonnes of oil spilling into the sea. Over 8.57 lakh sq km of mangroves along the coastlines of Mumbai, Thane and Raigad districts were severely affected.

The oil spill caught government agencies unawares. The State Pollution Control Board, the State environment department and the port authorities could not pinpoint who was liable. The Mumbai disaster was booked not as an oil spill but an accidental discharge, as defined in the Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986. In the Ennore oil spill, if the enquiry reveals any criminal intent, the case will go to criminal courts.

The Mumbai spill, however, serves as a good reference point. When it came to fixing liability and responsibility, all the parties concerned had passed the buck. The Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board ended up releasing ₹80 lakh towards the initial clean-up operation, despite its officials insisting it was not the board’s responsibility.

Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh informed the Rajya Sabha on August 9, 2010, that both the shipping companies would be made to pay the clean-up cost. But the case is still in court and the catch is that both ships have foreign registrations — Chitra in Panama and Khalija in St Kitts. The International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage of 2001 would be useful here, but India is not a signatory. Seven years on, compensation seems a distant dream. The grass in Chennai seems greener, in a manner of speaking, as the ship owners and insurers are cooperating, and hopefully another Mumbai-like situation can be averted. Coast Guard authorities, however, said the vessels’ managements have not responded yet.

“What is normalcy, really? Marine life will take a long time to be restored. Bio-remediation measures will take long to kick in. We need an independent study on the impact on the marine ecosystem as well. Ennore is already a polluted surface. Define normalcy,” argues Janakarajan, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and an expert in water resources and management.

Blame game

Kamarajar port officials estimated the oil spillage at one or two tonnes. The Indian Coast Guard challenged this. “It is estimated that more than 20 tonnes of oil has spilt from MT Dawn Kanchipuram, as against the initial report of two-three tonnes,” the maritime authority told the media on January 31. On February 2, the figure rose to 40 tonnes and currently stands at 75 tonnes. If the fluctuating estimates were worrying enough, the lack of accountability was even more so.

The Coast Guard came down sharply on the company after an estimate pegged the spill at 40 tonnes. “The onus is on the company to state how much oil has been spilt. Once the oil has been spilt on the sea, it is difficult to estimate. Especially when it spreads over a large area,” IG Rajan Bargotra (Coast Guard East) told the media.

On February 3, Minister of State for Shipping Pon Radhakrishnan visited the spillage site. “The total quantity of sludge which has been cleaned up till today (Friday) is 65 tonnes. In addition, super-suckers have removed 54 tonnes of oil mixed with water. More than 80 per cent of the work has been completed and most of the residual work is expected to be over within two to three days,” he had said. State Fisheries Minister D Jeyakumar then said it was a one-day operation — 80 per cent of the spilled oil (around 60 tonnes) had been cleared and the remaining 15 tonnes would be cleared within a day.

Pressed by mediapersons, the Coast Guard differed on these claims and said it would take 10 days to clear the sludge.

On February 4, an official release from the Centre said, “More than 90 per cent of the work has been completed and most of the residual work is expected to be completed in a couple of days.”

Reiterating this a day later, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam said, “Over 90 per cent of the clean-up operations were over in the affected districts of Tiruvallur, Chennai and Kancheepuram. The sludge removal work will be completed in a day or two.”

In the absence of clear numbers, Prof Janakarajan chose to remain sceptical. “We need data, we can’t accept the constantly changing figures,” he said.

However, a marine biologist in the environment ministry, who declined to be named, called for a more realistic approach to the issue. “Politicians are not the ones we should be listening to, it’s scientists who are on the ground. Data collection is not going to happen overnight... we’ll have to be patient... Transparency is required, but we should leave it to the agencies collecting the data.”

But work is moving slowly and is seemingly directionless. The DG dodged questions on the cleaning operations and instead called for greater appreciation for the work of volunteers and workers.

Ironically, there has been no effort to equip the workers and volunteers with protective gear. Environmental experts have warned against the dangers of exposure to the complex cocktail of chemicals in the oil spill.

Too little, too late

Darya Ship Management is the private firm responsible for the clean-up. A senior Coast Guard official said the delay in clean-up had led to increased viscosity of the spillage, making it difficult to handle with the existing equipment. “Small marine animals are also getting sucked into the equipment in the process.” Two of the submersible specialised skimmers broke down as a result, further adding to the delays.

After the initial estimate of two tonnes on February 1, Kamarajar Port officials now say they have collected 90 tonnes so far, and there could be more.

The environment ministry, meanwhile, has sent a showcause notice to the port authorities, asking why they should not be penalised for not acting immediately after the oil spill.

The State Pollution Control Board is overseeing the work and the Coast Guard is aiding it. Darya Ship Management could not be reached for a comment.

Amid the constantly changing estimates, the lack of preparedness, politicians more focused on appeasing the public and attempts to ‘close’ the matter with hastily settled compensation, the large-scale damage wreaked on the environment and the deadly consequences are nowhere in the picture.

Divya Karthikeyan is an independent journalist with The Lede

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Published on February 17, 2017
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