The Chennai Oil Spill: A Lesson for India’s Maritime Agencies

Recent Features


The Chennai Oil Spill: A Lesson for India’s Maritime Agencies

The Chennai oil spill is a wake-up call: India needs a better response to maritime ecological disasters.

The Chennai Oil Spill: A Lesson for India’s Maritime Agencies
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Pooja Kumar

For over a week now India’s maritime agencies have been grappling with a massive oil spill off the coast of Chennai that has created a storm in the national media. On January 28, two vessels, the M.T. BW Maple and M.T. Dawn Kanchipuram collided with each other outside Kamarajar harbor at Ennore, causing a huge quantity of furnace oil to spill into the sea. The focus now is on India’s maritime safety record and why almost ten days after the accident central and state agencies are still struggling to tackle the impact of the polluting oil.

The spill is being seen as one of India’s worst ecological disasters ever. As a blanket of toxic sludge envelopes Chennai’s beaches, ecologists are confronted with the prospect of large-scale destruction of sea life and a near-permanent imbalance in the marine ecology of the region.

One has to wonder how it all happened. This was, by some accounts, a freak accident. Initial reports indicated that the two vessels collided at right angles as the bigger ship, the M.T. Dawn, was making its way into Kamarajar harbor. Yet, neither ship suffered any loss of life and or major damage to the main storage tanks. Most of the leakage seems to have taken place through a rupture on the cofferdam tank carrying bunker oil in the M.T. Dawn, which port authorities moved promptly to contain by deploying an oil boom.

But that’s just one part of the story. It seems also to be the case that there was a deliberate attempt to underplay the accident, aimed perhaps at concealing the full extent of damage, and to cover up the authorities’ failure in prudently assessing the situation. As details of the accident emerged, Kamarajar Port was quick to release a statement denying “any damage to the environment like oil pollution.” Days later, it was forced review its claim, conceding that a large spill had indeed occurred. Even then, officials insisted that the situation was well under control.

As it turned out, nothing was in anybody’s control. By the end of its first week, the leak had polluted over 35 kilometers of the city’s shoreline, engulfing most Chennai beaches. To the authorities’ chagrin, their primary weapon in the fight against the slick — the super-sucker skimmers – had failed to function, repeatedly choking up on the dense sludge. Even the dispersants sprayed by Coast Guard ships and helicopters weren’t terribly effective. As large numbers of dead turtles and fish began appearing ashore, the true extent of the disaster became plainly evident.

For many, the accident is in itself a mystery. In an era of GPS-aided navigation, it is unusual for ships to collide at sea – even more so when the vessels involved are well within port limits, and navigated by specialized pilots onboard. While there is always the possibility of a violation of the rules of the road, accidents rarely occur during leaving/entering harbor operations, when navigational controls are in the hands of trained and experienced personnel.

Expectedly, it is the performance of maritime agencies responsible for the clean-up that has been the focus of media criticism. Following the mishap, a host of agencies joined the containment and clearing-up mission – the Coast Guard (CG), the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, and Chennai Port authority, to name few. None, so far, has given the impression of being in charge of the situation. As the initial estimates of the leakage have been progressively revised from a ton of oil to 100 tons, it is amply clear only short-term tactical measures are being employed to arrest the oil slick.

The failure of Kamarajar Port in mounting an effective first response is particularly distressing. With no specialized equipment, and a shortage of trained personnel, the port officials came to depend entirely on the CG for the containment and clean-up operation. And yet, crucial information was held back. During the first four crucial hours after the accident, CG commanders were in the dark about important details, even though port officials may have possessed that information.

A detailed review of the guidelines and protocols that deal with oil spillages at sea is now in order — especially the roles and functions of agencies other than the Coast Guard. As per the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan (NOSDCP) of 1993, the director general of the Coast Guard is the Central Coordinating Authority (CCA) for the clean up effort necessitated by an oil spill at sea. He must bring together such diverse agencies as the Ministry of Shipping, the Department of Ocean Development, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, oil companies, port authorities, and state law enforcement agencies. Yet, when a real spill occurs, there is a presumption that it is only for the CG and other central agencies to take remedial action. As this accident showed, state agencies and the port authority are often first responders for an accident in coastal waters. Their aversion to tackle emergencies at sea, combined with the ill-conceived notion that only some are “qualified” to take remedial measures, compromises the efficacy of the wider salvage and cleanup effort.

For many, this isn’t just an issue of lacking “aptitude,” but faulty “attitude.” The NOSDCP brings out the need for the oil companies to maintain tier-I facility at port locations (where petroleum products are loaded /unloaded using jetties). It is a key guideline meant to create the capability to contain and clear an oil spill of up to 700 tons, but almost never taken seriously by port authorities. Not only are nonchalant port officials insufficiently invested in the contingency planning process, they are even known to avoid attending NOSDCP review meetings aimed at revising and updating specific procedures.

Experts point out that despite a steady decline in marine oil leakage incidents worldwide – owing in main part to better preparedness of ports in dealing with such contingencies – India’s record remains poor. The NOSDCP that outlines roles and responsibilities of agencies involved is a plan that exists only on paper. When a real accident happens, it is left to the Coast Guard, NGOs, and volunteers wielding buckets to carry out the clean up operations.

After an accident at sea, the official inquiry usually holds central agencies responsible for the failure to contain an oil leakage. Federal institutions, with equipment and experience in tackling maritime accidents, must indeed shoulder some the blame. Even bodies that provide information on the course of an oil spill, such as the Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services, must be held to account. But port authorities are equally responsible, especially when they fail to tackle a crisis in their vicinity. Unless port officials are brought within the ambit of accountability, no positive change can be expected to materialize.

Policymakers must realize that coastal security is not just about preventing another 26/11 type incident. The impact of pollution disasters is far graver, involving not just ecological damage, but also the loss of livelihood for the fishing community. An accident of this nature erodes the confidence of its people and the world community at large of the government’s ability to fulfill its commitments — of safe and healthy environment, navigational safety in India’s seas, security of seafaring in coastal waters, and the protection of marine life and biodiversity.

Sometimes, all it takes is a bad oil spill to tar a nation’s maritime safety record.

Abhijit Singh is Senior Fellow and Head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.