It was 3 pm on Friday afternoon. By the slippery rocks of Thiruvottriyur beach in North Chennai, a young man stood knee deep in a black, viscous substance which clung stubbornly on to his bare legs and arms. He bent down to scoop some of the oil into a small bucket, which was then handed down the long chain of volunteers, carried over the rocks and then dumped into one of the many water drums lined up by the shore.

A week after several tonnes of oil spilled into the Bay of Bengal, a large black pool still remained gathered against the rocky shore. And the massive struggle to clean up the polluted waters continued. Personnel from various government departments, fishermen, non-governmental organisation workers and other volunteers were still manually scooping out the viscous oil using buckets.

“We have removed more than 70 tonnes of oil manually,” said Pradeep B Mandal, Commanding Officer in the Coast Guard who was overseeing the cleanup operations on Thiruvottriyur beach.

It all began in the early hours of January 28. Two ships collided near the Kamarajar Port in North Chennai. One ship, MT BW Maple, carried liquefied petroleum gas. The other, MT Dawn Kanchipuram, carried petroleum oil lubricants from which several tonnes spilled into the sea. There is still no clear information about how much oil was spilled exactly. But by Saturday evening, the residents of neighbourhoods south of the port detected the strong, suffocating smell of oil as the waves carried the black oil towards the rocky shore.

“The smell of oil was so strong that we could hardly breathe for a few days,” said G Senthil, an auto rickshaw driver from Bharatiyar Nagar, a residential area that lay a few kilometres south of the port. “We were also very scared about the possibility of a huge fire. This is the place where we usually come with our families for picnics to enjoy ourselves over the weekend. But we didn’t allow our children near the place.”

Volunteers are exposed to toxic crude oil while cleaning up.

Disastrous damage

This oil spill is reportedly the first incident of its kind in the south-east coast of India. The latest reports show that the oil has spread over 72 km of the coast, from Ennore in the north where the Kamarajar port is located to Mahabalipuram in the south.

For the past week, the livelihood of fishing communities has suffered. Many fishermen are reluctant to take out their boats to see as they fear their equipment might get damaged by the crude oil. The fishermen who are continuing to venture out into the sea find that their fish is hardly being sold. The crowd at the fish markets across the city has thinned, as news spread that the fish may be contaminated and rendered poisonous by the oil.

“People are giving out wrong information on the news and making us suffer,” lamented P Malli, a fisherwoman at Marina Beach. “There is no connection between the oil spill and the quality of our fish. But we have hardly any customers and now have to reduce the price for our fish to be sold.”

The oil spill has also put aquatic life along the coast in danger. Even if the quality of fish may not be affected immediately, a possibility of a long term disaster looms ahead. Fishermen say that since the fish swim towards the coast during the coast and breed near the river mouth – which is presently choked by large amounts of oil – there is a possibility that the breeding of fish will be severely affected.

There is also concern over the effect of the oil spill on the vulnerable olive ridley turtles that nest along the Chennai coast around the month of February. “Turtles need to surface to breathe, so any deposition of oil on their nostrils and mouth can be toxic,” said Akila Balu, coordinator at Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, a volunteer group working to conserve and create awareness about olive ridley turtles. “They might also inhale toxic fumes which is highly corrosive for their liver and heart. The oil may also weigh them down and hinder their ease of movement.”

The oil has not affected turtles as much at present, Balu explained. “In the month of January, around 160 turtles have washed ashore dead,” she said. “But of these more than 150 were due to getting caught in trawl nets. Only a few died because of the oil.” But the oil spill may have long term effects. The oil may cause the bodies of the turtles to overheat when they bask in the sun, she said. Moreover, the oil tends to gather near sea grass and floating seaweed where hatchlings and young turtles live, causing them to suffocate.

Marine engineering students volunteering to clean the oil spill.

Not only turtles and fish, but also other forms of coastal organisms are set to suffer the effects of the oil spill. “We saw many dead crabs covered in oil washed up on the shore,” said Balu. “We have seen many live crabs on the beach over the last few days.” The oil spill could be damaging even for shore birds found near river mouths, she added. “If oil sticks to their wings, it could be highly detrimental to their movement,” she said.

On Friday, a team of scientists from National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, under the direction of the Environment Ministry, had visited Bharatiyar Nagar to survey the damage and to compile a report on its the social, biological and physical damage.

“Based on our model, the dispersal of oil pollution has taken place over 25 km,” said Asir Ramesh, a scientist at National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management. “At present, there is no very big problem in consuming fish. But the environmental damage of the oil spill is very high. This will cause a change in the biological mechanism of the coastal ecology be algal beds or river mouths. The environmental and economic value of these places will decline.”

Lapses on many levels

The fact that oil spill is being called a severe ecological disaster has come as a shock to many, given that on the day of the oil spill, Kamarajar Port issued a statement saying that “there was no damage to the environment like oil pollution”. For the next two days, there was still no information about the extent of the oil spill and the damage caused. On Tuesday, the port authorities said that one tonne of oil had leaked from the ship. But on the same day, the coast guard gave a statement that 20 tonnes of oil had seeped out from the ship. The latest reports say that atleast 70 tonnes of oil have leaked from the ship.

On January 28, the ship MT Dawn Kanchipuram had reportedly asked the port authorities for permission to discharge its oil within the port, but was not given the nod for two days, by which time the oil had spread. But the port said that some paper work was needed for them to allow the ship to dock.

On Friday, Kamarajar Port issued a statement saying that they were not to be blamed for the damage caused since they had taken all appropriate measures to tackle it.

“It may be noted that Coast Guard was informed by KPL in time and their ships and helicopter arrived in the morning of 28th January and kept continuous watch. The spillage was noticed in the shores only after one-and-a-half days,” they said in their press release.

But the Directorate General of Shipping has begun an investigation on the causes of the oil spill, The Indian Express reported.

Now, the Environment Ministry has issued a notice to the Kamarajar Port authorities seeking information about the various measures the port had in place to tackle an oil spill and what had led to the spill in the first place.

Social activist Nityanand Jayaraman said that there have been lapses on multiple levels by a number of agencies. “Blaming only one agency is only too easy,” he said. “First, how were three ports allowed to be built along the Chennai coast? How did they get all the necessary permits without having a real emergency response in place? After the oil spill, the police was supposed to have responded quickly and taken measures, but that did not happen. The Pollution Control has not opened its mouth in the last week. The Coastal Zone Management Authority goes around approving polluting projects in record time – why haven’t they done anything?”

Disaster planning and safety are vastly different on paper and in real life, added Jayaraman. “It is actually something which is ingrained in us culturally.”

A private company trying to clear the oil spill.

Cleanup struggle

Back at the rocky shore of Thiruvotriyur beach, Commander Mandal was nimbly climbing over the rocks overseeing the progress of the clean up. To his disappointment, private contractors engaged for removing the crude oil were struggling to get their equipment to work. The previous evening, a large pump was used to suck out oil, but the oil was too thick to travel through the pipe. On Friday, a private company tried to use a motorised machine on the surface of the water and collect the oil, but this was unsuccessful as one of the parts failed.

“We are trying different equipment to speed up the process but they are all failing,” said Mandal. “The more the delay, the more the oil coagulates. It turns into cold tar and becomes more difficult to remove.”

Much of the machinery that is usually used to clean up oil spills in India are not suited to be used in shallow waters. So as the oil thickens, more private contractors wait for Mandal’s permission to test their equipment, hoping to receive a contract to clean up the oil spill. One of them is Chandra Kant Tewari, the owner of a company called Envirofluid. ”We produce a biodegradable product which is dispersed over the oil,” he said. “This substance breaks down the thick oily substance and absorbs it. We are waiting to try it out now.”

Meanwhile, the situation has not been easy for the 1,000-odd volunteers handling the crude oil as well. Reports say that exposure to crude oil can cause dermatitis and be carcenogenic to humans.

Volunteers even face logistic difficulties in their work. S Navaneethan, the coordinator of Green Warriors, an environmental NGO that has been active in the cleanup operation, said that for the even the containers they are pouring the oil into are collapsing and breaking due to the heat. “These containers are meant to carry water, not thick crude oil,” he said.

Navaneethan said that there must ideally be a quick response team for disaster management with all the necessary equipment under the district administration that coordinates the cleanup effort. “But now everybody is doing work separately and there is little coordination,” he said.

Water drums are being used for storing oil.