Menu
Account

The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up

 
 

Small ocean waves, brown in color and mixed with thick, deeper brown oil sludge hit the legs of the few men in orange overalls. The men steadied themselves to avoid falling. It was February 2. The sludge was the result of an oil spill that had happened six days earlier off the port of Chennai city.

On January 28, just before dawn, MT BW Maple, an empty vessel leaving Chennai’s Kamarajar Port in Ennore, collided with MT Dawn Kanchipuram, a POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants) tanker bringing in a load of more than 32,000 tonnes. The collision caused a rupture in MT Dawn, leading to an oil spill. The vessel, taken into the port to empty the cargo to prevent further spills, was declared off limits to the media.

As the winds and waves carried the sludge and slick for 25 kilometers along the coast, fishermen could not venture into the sea.

Here, the men were standing in knee-deep sludge, close to a groin wall that jutted into the sea, in Ernavur, a coastal village about 25 km north of Chennai. The sludge had washed ashore between the groin and the riprap of granite boulders. The riprap, separating the coast and the adjoining highway, was meant to prevent coastal erosion.

Most of the sludge reached the shores of Ernavur and had to be cleared manually. The men scooped the slime around their legs in buckets and passed the buckets on to their colleagues standing in line on the riprap. It was a difficult task as they had to balance themselves against the rolling waves and scoop out the extremely thick sludge. It was a difficult job for the men standing on the riprap too, as it is quite steep in Ernavur and the boulders are irregularly placed. The lower, oil-coated boulders were slippery. Up the riprap and down, the buckets passed hands, till the sludge was deposited in big drums, to be carted away later.

A couple of such teams from various government agencies worked tirelessly. A sense of purpose pervaded the atmosphere, punctuated by occasional laughter. The feeling of common purpose in clearing the sludge was palpable. The men took pride that they were working to clear pollution and to help the  fishermen get on with their lives.

Two days later, on February 4, the scene was almost the same, as the sludge was still being washed ashore in Ernavur. Meanwhile, blobs of oil were appearing in Mullikuppam, a coastal village 23 km south of Ernavur. Hard days are ahead for those clearing the sludge and the slime-mixed sand.

Samuel Theodre is a  professional photographer based in India.

The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: Workers scoop up thick, heavy sludge off the beach of Ernavur, a coastal village where most of the sludge had been washing up for the past six days.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: A sheet of oil sludge off the Ernavur beach.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: The spill, carried by the wind and the waves, settled between a groin wall and a boulder riprap in Ernavur, close to the port and collision site.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: Buckets full of sludge were passed manually up a line of workers standing on the riprap boulders, an erosion control measure.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: Working with a sense of purpose, the fire and rescue team poised on the other side of the riprap passed along the buckets of sludge.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: The sludge had to be manually emptied into drums, because of the thick consistency.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: Drums of sludge being loaded, to be carted away.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: The traditional fishing catamarans and the boulders gleam black because of the oil.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: A fire and rescue worker emptying his boots of water.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 2: A group of fishermen relaxing by the Ernavur beach, on the other side of the groin, as the spill stopped them from venturing into the sea.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 4: In Kasimedu wharf, about 5 km from Ernavur, fish are seen below the blobs of sludge and oil slick.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 4: With the boats and launches berthed, the busy Kasimedu wharf wore a deserted look.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 4: The catch from those boats that did venture out eight days after the spill had no takers at the usually teeming Kasimedu landing.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 4: In KVK Kuppam, less than 1 km away from Ernavur, the blue of the sea became brown at the beach as sludge kept washing up, leaving tiny oil blobs in wavy patterns.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 4: The intensity of the waves was reduced because of the dense sludge.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
The Great Chennai Oil Spill Clean Up
Feb. 4: Eight days after the spill, the amount and the viscosity of the sludge remained almost the same as before.
Image Credit: Samuel Theodre
Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief