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Daily Editorial : Disaster Management – Oil Spill near the Chennai coastline


Two ships, one tanker carrying petrol and lube oil, and the other carrying LPG, collided outside the Kamarajar Port in Ennore leading to a major oil spill in the coastline.

What is an oil spill?

An oil spill is the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, especially marine areas, due to human activity, and is a form of pollution. The term is usually applied to marine oil spills, where oil is released into the ocean or coastal waters, but may also occur on land.

What happens when oil spills?

The effects of oil pollution are devastating and well documented.

Effects on Marine life:

  • Since most oils float, the creatures most affected by oil are animals like fishes, seabirds, turtles that are found on the sea surface or on shorelines if the oil comes ashore. They are killed in greater numbers than other kinds of creatures.
  • Several dead turtles and hatchlings coated with the black oil were washed ashore and discovered among the boulders near north Chennai coast.
  • Sea animals caught in an oil spill, on being exposed to toxic petroleum products often results in lower reproductive rates, organ damage and death. The effects remain for long period of time.

Effects on Humans:

  • Direct exposure to oil spill – a variety of health effects may develop when the oil spill occurs close to where people live or work and may come in contact with humans through breathing gaseous oil compounds and/or oil compounds adsorbed on particulate matter (dispersed through air). Another exposure pathway may relate to activities in contaminated ground (e.g., soil) or through skin adsorption when touching spilled material.


  • Indirect exposure through consumption of contaminated food or water – especially relevant in the case of consumption of fish that was in contact or in an oil spill polluted environment. This is because some oil components have ability to “bioaccumulate” in living organisms. This means that if a fish lives in a polluted environment, it will keep adsorbing in its body some oil components (without excretion) which may reach concentrations several orders of magnitude higher than those of the surrounding waters. Through consumption of such polluted fish meat, humans may become seriously exposed to higher concentrations of oil components than in the surrounding environment or as compared to ingestion of the polluted water or bathing in the polluted water.

Effects on Economy:

  • When precious crude oil or refined petroleum is lost, it affects the amount of petroleum and gas available for use. This means more barrels have to be imported from other countries.
  • The process of cleaning the oil spill requires a lot of financing. Although the company responsible for the oil spills and their effects has to clean it up, there is a lot of government help required at this point.
  • The local tourism industry suffers a huge setback as most of the tourists stay away from such places.
  • Due to this, various activities such as sailing, swimming, rafting, fishing cannot be performed.
  • Industries that rely on sea water to carry on their day to day activities halt their operations till it gets cleaned.
  • The workers who are to clean up the spill face tremendous health problems later in life as well. Their medical treatment has to be paid for and becomes the responsibility of the government. Putting all the methods of recovery into place and monitoring them takes away resources from other more important work and hits the economy in small but powerful ways.

Indication of Lack of disaster preparedness of India

  • The port initially denied any significant environmental damage from oil, but as the scale of the disaster began to unfold, and a large number of dead turtles and fish were washed ashore, it became obvious that the spill had not been quickly contained.
  • The pollution response equipment for all major ports and 26 non-major ports is funded to the extent of 50% by the Centre, casting a responsibility on ports to contribute the other half and build the capabilities to handle disasters.
  • But looking at the clean-up work being done on war-footing being carried out in several areas and involving of volunteers, it smacks of disaster-unpreparedness of ports showing they have not fulfilled the responsibility.
  • Similar was the case in Mumbai Oil spill of 2010 where Jawaharlal Nehru Port authorities were clueless and did nothing to help Coast Guards.

This latest incident shows India has still not learnt lessons as oil sludge is being removed manually using large buckets.

Consequences of failure

  • The hiding of facts after an oil spill is counterproductive could erode the confidence of the international community in the country’s ability to fulfil its commitments within the UN system to protect marine life and biodiversity since the impact is prolonged and are bound to come to fore.
  • Failure to safeguard marine turtle and bird habitats, for example, is a clear violation of the provisions of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and its specific memorandum on the Indian Ocean-Southeast Asian region to which India is a signatory.
  • This spill may spell disaster for the Olive Ridley Turtles, as these come near the shores of Chennai between January and March.

Where does the liability lie?

  • National Union of Fishermen has filed a PIL in the Madras High Court.
  • A FIR has been filed against the two ships involved in collision – MT Dawn Kanchipuram and MT BW Maple.
  • The recovery of compensation and costs from the owners of the vessels will be done, as they were commercial cargo ships, they are usually insured.
  • Coast Guard IG and MD of the Kamarajar Port have said that, it was vessel’s responsibility to report matters correctly and they have under-reported it. Strict action must be taken against them.

What has to be done now?

  • TERI has been working on bio-remedial methods to clean up oil spills. They have developed a technology called OilZapper, a cocktail of bacteria that feed on the oil and degrade the hydrocarbons.
  • The timely advice from agencies such as the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, which is mandated to forecast the course of an oil spill, will be of tremendous importance now.
  • An independent inquiry is vital to determine whether the training and acquisition of equipment to handle such accidents for all agencies passed muster.
  • International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (OPRC):(Adoption: 1990; Entry into force: 1995)


The Convention calls for the establishment of stockpiles of oil spill combating equipment, the holding of oil spill combating exercises and the development of detailed plans for dealing with pollution incidents. All ports should be cross checked for the mandate given by the convention.

What is the theoretical frame-work for such issues?

  • Government approved National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan (NOS-DCP) in Nov 1993, designating the Indian Coastal Guard as the Central Coordinating Authority.


  • In 2015, Coast Guards revised the NOS-DCP to meet international standards, setting up an Online Oil Spill Advisory System that places India amongst the select few countries that have indigenously developed capabilities of prediction of trajectory of oil spills, mapping environmental sensitivities in coastal zones, deployment of aerial dispersant spray system and facilitating regional oil spill contingency plans.


  • India also ratified in 2015, the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage, 2001 (Bunker Convention) which ensures adequate, prompt and effective compensation for damage caused by oil spills.


  • Since 2011, Oil Spill India (OSI), an international forum on oil spill prevention, preparedness, response and restoration systems have been showcasing best practices, technologies and experiences on oil spill management.


  • Recently in 2016 September there was a convention in Mumbai of OSI with theme “Commitment, Synergy and Excellence.”


Authorities just put everything in place, on paper. And yet, this long-term marine disaster is unfolding near the Chennai Coast. There has been sluggish response, but it may not be too late for damage control. A coordinated response, with deployment of technology to contain the spread and rescue the marine life and habitants will go a long way.

Under pressure, authorities shouldn’t just declare clean-up procedure as complete in hurry. It has to be taken to its logical conclusion where everybody would feel 100% safe.


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