Oil spill marked by inefficiency

The oil spill caused by the collision between an LPG tanker and a fuel carrier outside the Kamarajar port near Chennai last week has caused extensive damage to the coastal environment.

Marine life including fish, turtles, birds and other flora and fauna has been badly affected. The livelihood of large numbers of people in the coastal area has been hit. The handling of the mishap and the resulting situation by the authorities has left much to be desired. In the first place, it is difficult for such an accident to take place these days without an improbable failure of equipment or gross negligence, because all ships have electronic navigation systems. Protocols relating to the movement and entry of ships in ports also seem to have been violated. For example, the pilot who should have guided the incoming ship into the port is reported to have left before his duty was over.  Such lapses cause accidents. There is also a view that the spill could have been avoided if the port authorities had moved one vessel to a secure location after the collision.

The response of the authorities after the accident was also deficient. The seriousness of the spill was underplayed initially and only when it spread and dead fish and birds started washing ashore that the mitigation work was seriously launched. The Coast Guard was not informed in time about the mishap. All ports are expected to have an oil spill contingency plan. But there was no such plan in the Kamarajar port. Whatever equipment was there did not work or was not suitable. Trained personnel were also missing. Volunteers were seen removing the oil spillage and doing the clean-up with bare hands, plastic mugs and buckets. The navy has since joined the efforts. The overall failure of the authorities who were responsible to handle such situations was clear.

Unfortunately, the same kind of inefficiency, indifference and negligence mark the handling of all disasters in the country, whether they are floods, cloudbursts, earthquakes or common railway accidents. Oil spills are difficult to neutralise even for countries which have the best expertise and equipment. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is an example. It took many days to control an oil spill in the Sunderbans in 2014. Even after the spill is brought under control, the after-effects continue for a long time. Once an ecosystem is upset, restoration is not easy. The failures in Chennai should lead to better preparedness for and more efficient handling of such situations in future.

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