The disaster continues unabated. The oil spill which hit the Ennore coast in Chennai, at 3.45 a.m. on January 28, continues to spread along the coast. It is destroying marine life, livelihoods and causing permanent damage to biodiversity. The issue, with its massive ramifications, has been sidelined from public space by the dramatic political developments in the State — a cruel irony which allowed those responsible to escape attention and accountability.
From denial to tardiness
Some crucial facts. Two ships, the Maple, having offloaded LPG at Ennore, and on its way out, and the Dawn Kanchipuram, with 21,141 tonnes of toxic heavy furnace or bunker oil, and coming in, collided at Ennore port that Saturday. The oil gushed out of Dawn Kanchipuram. Although a probe by the Ministry of Shipping is under way, it is still not known how Kamarajar Port Limited (KPL) authorities allowed the “accident” to happen. After the accident, KPL delayed action and the response was utterly inadequate. Whatever the probe reports say, had response mechanisms swung into action, the oil spill could have been contained. KPL went into denial mode as did various public authorities, first denying any fallout at all, and then capping the spill at one tonne of bunker oil.
“There is no damage to the environment like oil pollution,” read the six-sentence statement from Kamarajar Port. “All top officials of port closely monitoring and the situation is under control.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. What can euphemistically be called a “trust deficit” had begun. Therefore, the first demand of citizens should be that when a disaster happens, agencies should act immediately to contain the disaster — not act immediately to contain the damage to their reputations.
There was inexcusable delay in the response while the toxic oil gushed into the sea. By the time the Coast Guard was informed much later in the morning, great damage had already been done. The National Oil Spill-Disaster Contingency Plan (NOS-DCP) was sanctioned in 1993, drafted in 1995 and adopted in 1996. In the two decades since then, the plan has routinely been updated and revised to reflect the latest in international safety and regulatory standards. Evidently, the only thing it reflects is a complete failure in action.
For a contingency plan
The Indian Coast Guard has been demanding, for over 20 years now a State contingency plan from States. This was reiterated as recently as August 2016 in the 21st annual meeting of the NOS-DCP and during the most recent meetings of the State Coastal Zone Management Authority. Despite this, Tamil Nadu has not furnished such a plan. For the past three years, the Tamil Nadu Maritime Board has been working on a draft for the plan. The State now needs to tell its people why a local contingency plan has not been put in place. The regulatory deficit is so glaring that no probe is required to prove it.
There is absolutely no disaster-related information, especially details regarding the current status of the spill, or precautions the public needs to take which ought to have been widely disseminated by any responsible administration. Whatever the chaos in political circles, the bureaucracy should have taken necessary action. Can fishermen venture out to sea? Is it safe to eat sea food? Indeed, is it safe to even volunteer to help clean the toxic oil sludge without proper protective gear, using only buckets? No. The fun fact which was put out by KPL is that tenders have now been issued to buy oil spill response machinery. Meanwhile, 187 tonnes of oil sludge have been removed by the Coast Guard and Chennai’s bravehearts.
The utter lack of transparency becomes murkier. While some news reports talk of bioremediation being carried out by experts from the Indian Institute of Technology and Indian Oil, the sludge is reported to have a heavy concentration of nine heavy materials such as zinc, lead and arsenic which are non-biodegradable and cannot be removed by bioremediation. These will remain in the ecosystem for the foreseeable future, poisoning marine life all the way up the food chain and causing irreparable damage to humans as well as to the marine ecosystem.
More worrying are reports of sludge having been buried in neighbouring hamlets such as K.V.K. Kuppam and Bharathi Nagar, where seven pits containing oil sludge were found. Further burying was stopped only after local residents protested. It is horrifying to think that the ship owner/agent actually tried to dispose of the sludge waste among the very community most affected by the spill, and despite grave hazards to their health and safety. Are the authorities complicit in this? If not, they were certainly negligent in allowing this to happen.
More ecological damage
Reports indicate that the slick has spread to Cuddalore in the south, will soon reach the Pichavaram mangroves and then northwards to affect the Pulicat mangroves. The compromising of mangroves would be a disaster of epic proportions. Conversely, it has already been announced that the spill containment work has been almost completed. If true, it is an outrage. Containment and damage control must continue until the damage is contained and not stopped at an arbitrary time fixed by the authorities.
The matter is before the National Green Tribunal. While culpability and compensation matters are being legally thrashed out, the State and Central governments are duty-bound to keep the public informed. Let the public know how much damage has occurred, where and whether the damage continues. What are the safety precautions that have to be taken now, and for how long? Sharing of information honestly is the very least that the public expects from its governments. Those in authority, officials and otherwise, who are guilty of criminal negligence must be brought to book. The culpable owners/crew should be severely penalised. It must ultimately be ensured that the polluters pay an exemplary price for their sins.
It is now painfully obvious that our systems and institutions have failed. But we have discovered in Chennai recently that a concerted and determined effort by ordinary citizens can move the leviathan of governments to action. I can think of no better cause than this for citizens to come together and force accountability and action from the authorities.
Jayanthi Natarajan is a former Union Environment Minister and a political activist