Three days after authorities of Karmarajar Port in Chennai sent out a press note denying an oil spill following the collision of 2 vessels near Ennore, port officials along with the coast guard are scrambling to clean patches of thick black sludge along the coast.
The denial, lack of communication and failure to contain the spill seems like a clear breach of procedures that should have been followed by authorities.
The MT BW Maple, which was carrying liquefied petroleum gas and the MT Dawm Kanchipuram, an oil tanker collided near the Kamarjar Port, in the early hours of Saturday.
According to the 'Environmental Impact Assessment master plan' for the Kamarajar port, any spill which has been classified as tier II will have to be controlled by the State Government, Coast Guard and Port authorities together. The response team will have to be immediately notified and record of the events and communication log will have to be maintained.
In the case of the Ennore collision however, even the Coast Guard were kept in the dark about the extent of damage. "On Saturday morning, we were first informed that there was no oil spill. Later, we were told that there was a spill. We stopped the oil leakage and then informed the fisheries department," an official from the Coast Guard told TNM.
Environmentalists are now demanding that Port authorities and the State Government come out with the truth on the real extent of damage.
"The evidence that the authorities have messed up is in plain sight," says environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman. "The oil has been carried 35 kilometres away to Thiruvanmyur. This shows the lack of containment and immediate response. The containment has been based on immediate visuals as opposed to a thorough inspection or study of the nature and extent of the spill," he added.
Authorities at the port, however claim, that due procedure has been followed. "We have deployed workers to manually remove the oil. The ship authorities claim that 1 tonne of oil has been spilt. But we cannot be sure," Ennore port Chairman, MA Bhaskarachar told TNM. "A float boom was first used to contain the oil and then this morning we used a disperser," he adds.
Environmentalists however say that the float boom used by authorities, will not be efficient when used on oil with such high viscosity. When TNM contacted the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), to confirm the report, we were told that 5 authorities from the TNPCB, Coast Guard officials and port authorities have been huddled in a meeting in the secretariat from 8.30 am on Tuesday.
"They have been called to deal with the Ennore situation," informed an irate officer. "All the officers have gone to the secretariat for a big meeting," she adds.
"What is more dangerous than the spill itself is the lack of transparency on the part of authorities," says Nityanand. "Why is the Government not issuing a circular detailing the nature of oil spilt, the quantity that spilt into the sea and the measures being taken?"he asks.
While fishing villages near the coast have witnessed first hand the effects of the oil spill on the sea and the marine life, they are yet to get any form of a formal advisory from the District adminstration or the State Government.
"Where is your disaster management plan?"asks Swetha Narayan, an environmentalist from Chennai. "The oil which has spilt has benzene in it and its vapours are carcinogenic in nature. What are the authorities doing?"
When the Port authorities were questioned about issual of advisories to those living near the coast, they claimed it was not their responsibility. "The district adminstration will have to send out any sort of warnings," says MA Bhaskarachar, "Our job is only to assist the Coast Guard."
A 2013 Coast guard report, however, clearly stated that there are only 10 trained personnel in Chennai and Ennore to respond to Tier 1 and Tier 2 situations. "There is a lack of preparedness on the part of port officials. They boast about development and facilities at the port. But they are under-prepared for a situation as critical as this," explains Swetha.
In Bharathiyar Nagar in Ennore a dense black film of oil has made its way to the shore. The area where waves once lapped against the rocks, is filled with this sludge. With the government being tight-lipped on the extent of damage and steps taken to clear the mess, these villagers are living in a state anxiety.