The oil leak from MSC Chitra could not have happened at a worse time.
This is the breeding season for marine animals, and environmentalists
fear that the spill may impact not only the breeding cycle, but also
much more in the future if the oil contaminates the sediments and the
sea bed. The spill is set to disturb the entire marine ecosystem,
including the mangroves, in turn affecting the livelihood of the coastal
Environmentalists have called for a systematic study of the incident.
An ongoing survey by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has
revealed that a six-eight inch oil sediment has already reached the
shore of four villages on the Mumbai-Raigad coastline.
“Around 20 km coastline of Revas, Mandwa, Sasawne and Kihim has been
contaminated,” Deepak Apte, scientist and head of the BNHS team, told
The Hindu on phone. “A little contamination has also been found at
Alibaug, but it may not necessarily be the oil spill from the leaking
ship,” he said. Some oil-coated biscuit packets have also been spotted
at the Gateway of India in Mumbai.
The exact impact assessment cannot be done as no one has the
accurate information about the contents of the ship. But according to
experts, India does not have the technology, the money, or the protocol
to clear the slick once it reaches the beach. “The beaches where the oil
has reached are virtually permanently damaged now,” Bittu Sahgal,
editor of Sanctuary Asia, told The Hindu on phone.
Shyam Asolekar, Professor at the Centre for Environmental Science and
Engineering, Indian Instituteof Technology (IIT), Mumbai, told The
Hindu, “The marine ecology consists of all the small and big living
organisms in the sea, the particulate matter and the sediments. There
are other living forms like the sea gulls that are dependent on the
marine life for survival. Even they are a part of the ecosystem and may
stand the risk of being affected.”
He said the crude oil contained various sizes of particles that
affected the ecology in different ways. “Some float and form a thin
layer on the water. These are the particles that are generally cleared.
Some get dissolved and absorbed in water. Though their proportion is not
much, they are detrimental to the marine ecosystem. Others are
volatilised particles that evaporate. They cause toxicity to birds and
other living forms outside the marine ecosystem.” Because the nature and
extent of the spill has not yet been completely revealed, it is
difficult to assess the impact.
Many environmentalists are upset by the poor risk assessment. Mr.
Sahgal said the real issue was not the oil leak, but that no one had
been told what was in the containers. “First, we have to establish the
content of every container to ensure that there is no life-threatening
risk when the dry chemicals mix with water,” he said.
“What if there is radioactive material in some of the containers?
What is the big secret that the Coast Guard does not want to reveal,”
asked one of the agitated environmentalists who did not wish to be
Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust,
blamed the Coast Guard for taking slow action. “It is the nodal agency.
It should have swung into action immediately and set up containment
booms that very day,” he said. (Oil booms are floating tubes which act
as barricades and absorb oil from the surface of the sea.)
“Considering the location of the leak, it would have been easier to
contain the spill if immediate action had been taken. The spill happened
in the sheltered water in the creek,” he said.
Ashish Fernandes, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace, said the spill
had to be contained as soon as possible by removing the existing
containers on the ship. It was crucial to know what the cargo contained
in terms of hazardous substances. Organophosphates were toxic and could
enter the food chain of aquatic life and cause havoc.
It was important to retrieve the floating containers and get them to
safe storage. Lube was the most serious of all the oil on the ship. If
the oil had already reached the shores of Mumbai, especially near the
mangroves, there would have to be physical mopping operation, he said.
The monsoon, high tides, wind currents and internal currents
aggravate the impact of the spill and can hinder the containment
operation. R.K. Patil, chairperson of the Maharashtra Macchhimar Kruti
Samiti said: “Because of new moon, the tide would be maximum for the
next few days. This will take the oil slick to the otherwise
inaccessible coastline as well.”
He said the slick would have a major impact on the livelihood of the
fishermen community. “Around 10 lakh people will get affected. This
includes the fishermen and their families. Fishing is our only source of
survival,” he said. Mr. Patil blamed the pilots of the ships for the
accident and urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene by setting
up an inquiry commission. “Oil spill keeps happening on the Mumbai
coast. No adequate action is taken. We fishermen have brought so much of
oil slick and tar balls to the notice of the Coast Guard, but to no
avail,” he said.