As one approaches Bharathiyar Nagar in Ennore, the smell of oil – pungent, distinctive and overwhelming – fills the air. By the shore, the environmental disaster that has unfolded is there for all to see. Where the waters of Bay of Bengal once lapped the shore, a film of black sludge gleams in the sunlight. The dense sludge floating on the sea surface spreads with the tide, smearing everything it touches black.
Three days after the MT BW Maple, carrying liquefied petroleum gas, and MT Dawn Kanchipuram, an oil tanker collided near the Kamarajar Port in Ennore, officials are still struggling to contain the oil spill. A dozen fishermen together with the Indian Coast Guard are the clean-up crew. Armed with only buckets, they scoop the sludge into buckets, a slow and tedious task, even as the oil spill has drifted towards the south – to the Marina Beach and to Elliot’s Beach.
Nityanand Jayaraman, environmental activist says, “The impact on the environment, health and the livelihood are closely connected. It should have been contained almost immediately. Otherwise it becomes impossible to contain the spill as the slick moves to the shore and to deeper sea.” Adding to the problem, he notes, is that authorities are unaware about just how much has spilt.
The fishing villages near the port were among the first to experience the damage. When the ships collided at 4am on Saturday, Nirmal, a fisherman who was out at sea, felt the oil fall on him. “I came back home and tried removing all the oil but it wasn’t washing off. Later, I came to know that two ships had collided and the oil had leaked from one of the ships,” he narrates.
The villagers of three fishing villages – Kasi Koil Kuppam, Kasivisalatchi Kuppam and KVK Kuppam – situated about 300 metres from the sea are distressed over the environmental catastrophe that has taken place at their shores. Fishermen complain of not being able to go out to sea, and many found their nets damaged, coated in the greasy oil, while their boats returned to shore with the film of black sludge on their surface.
“All the spilled oil has reached the shallow waters due to the water currents. We cannot fish here now as the fish will not remain in the same area after the oil spill. Many of the fish have also died. We won’t be able to fish for the next three months,” points out SA Vignesh, Meenavar Makkal Munnani Katchi, head of the North Chennai region.
Elaborating on the environmental disaster, Nityanand says there are physical and chemical effects following the oil spill. “The oil is on the sea surface. Deprived of sunlight, photosynthesis is cramped and as a result botanical productivity reduces. The oil harms fish that come to the surface and turtles. They get coated with oil and drown,” he observes.
Shankar, another fisherman says they found two olive ridley turtles dead. He says, “We don’t know how many fish will be affected by this oil spill. But we won’t be able to find fish in this region for the few months.”
However, a staff from the Indian Coastal Guard denies that turtles died due to the oil spill, noting, “The oil has spilled over 700 metres with thickness of 0.5 inches. The fish would not have died as the oil is in the shallow waters. The turtles had died a few days back and not because of the oil spill.”
But Nityanand warns that it’s the chemical effects that will have a medium to long-term impact on the environment and on people’s lives. “The oils contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and benzene, which are carcinogens. They do not disappear and are known to cause leukaemia and children’s cancer. It stays in the food chain and comes back to harm us. This is not a localised disaster,” he says.
An official at the Indian Coast Guard says it will take another three days to remove the oil. “On Saturday early morning, we got information that the ships collided. But first we were told they was no oil spill. Later, we were informed about the oil spill. The oil leakage was fixed and we also informed the fisheries department about it,” he states.
As those on the ground continue to work tirelessly, Nityanand says the blame should lie with Kamarajar Port for “underplaying” the accident. “It is unforgiveable. They should have spoken the truth. The ecological system is already under stress. This shock can cause irreparable damage,” he concludes.
(Edited by Anna Isaac)