Seventy tons of sludge have been pulled out of the Bay of Bengal so far, and by the time the first part of the clean-up operation is done, the waste could weigh as much as 90 tons. As workers drag out the crude oil mixed with seawater and other particles, there is rising concern about the health effects of the toxic waste on those coming in contact with it.
And the second major concern is, what will happen to the sludge once the clean-up is done?
TNM spoke to Tamil Nadu Environment Secretary, Atulya Mishra, who is one of the people in charge of cleaning up the damage. â€śThe task of cleaning up the oil spill is being coordinated by the Kamarajar Port, with the Pollution Control Board and the Indian Oil Corporation. IOC officials from Faridabad have flown down for the assessment and the clean-up,â€ť he said.
While the oil spill has been contained to a 20x20 area, from the initial 100x100 area, the Coast Guard have neutralised 34000 square metres of the oil spill, to a depth of 10 metres.
â€śOil sheen visible during the initial stage was very thin. With passage of time, the oil has spread over a larger area. Whatever oil spill was there within a depth of 10 metres, we used oil spill dispersant to neutralise the section of spill,â€ť said Rajan Bargotra, IG Coast Guard.
The Environment Secretary assured us that by Saturday morning, a major part of the clean-up would be completed, but it will take at least a fortnight for all the sludge to be taken out. Experts consulted by the government have said that residue from the oil spill will continue to wash ashore for several weeks, and a general clean-up will have to be done.
Simultaneously, the second part of the operation would begin.
â€śWe will have to segregate the water and the non-oil components from the oil sludge. Some bacteria which will eat away the oil particles will then be introduced into the oil sludge, and once that process is complete, the remaining waste will be buried into a pit,â€ť Atulya said.
The TNPCB has set up a 2500 sqm facility in Ennore for bioremediation of oil using bacterial solution.
The authorities have also collected and examined samples of fish from the deep sea. Port officials claim that there is no contamination to the marine fauna, and that the sludge which is being removed manually by the workers is not toxic. Environmentalists though are calling their bluff.
As environment activist Nityanand Jayaraman explained, â€śThe oils contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and benzene, which are carcinogens. They do not disappear and are known to cause leukaemia and childrenâ€™s cancer. It stays in the food chain and comes back to harm us. This is not a localised disaster.â€ť
Meanwhile, the Madras High Court heard a petition filed by fishermen from Chennai, demanding that the two ships that collided near the Kamarajar port in Chennai, causing the oil spill, should not be allowed to leave Indian waters. Petitioners claimed that if the ships were allowed to leave, they would not pay for the cleaning operations and wouldn't provide compensation to fishermen whose livelihood has been affected.
In its reply, the state government said that action will be taken, and that a complaint has already been filed. The court has held the Centre and the State responsible for any action to be taken in connection with the spill.
An application has been filed at the National Green Tribunal on the oil spill, and will be heard on February 20.