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Ocean drain - The oil spill saga

In September 2009, Black Rose, a Mongolian ship—its red flag aflutter—left the harbour off Paradip port, in Orissa, India. Barely 100 km into the sea, it sank. The ship spilled out 924 tonnes of furnace oil and 38 tonnes of diesel, into the sea. So the precious fuel is now floating in the ocean bed, with its layer of slick seriously threatening all marine life forms. The water currents would probably carry the oil to the nesting ground of Olive Ridley turtles, which lie only a few kilometers away. It would stick to the skin of fish, suffocating them (as they breathe through skin and gills). Or worse, it would create tiny black round structures called tar balls all along the shore line.

The scary fact is that the Paradip mishap is neither rare nor uncommon.

    Not so accidental after all   

Paradip port handled 33,109,000 tonnes of cargo in 2005-2006, out of which 12,529,000 tonnes consisted of thermal coal and another 10,273,000 tonnes of iron ore. And this is just one of the 12 major and 185 notified ports that India has, dotting its 7600 kilometres long coastline, one of the biggest peninsulas in the world. Ports are the mainstay of India’s economy where 70 per cent of oil and coal is imported. And the cheapest mode of transport is through the ocean. So sea traffic is here to stay.

   Dirty dealings   

There are some process which all cargo ships undergo as a standard practice, commonly called operational discharges. Sample some:


A ship sails from country A to country B to load crude oil into its tankers and then retrun. But to begin with, it cannot sail with empty tankers as the ship’s design is calculated such that it carries loaded tankers. To adjust the weight, the fuel tankers are loaded with oil which would also serve as ship’s fuel from point A to B. At when it reaches destination B however, it has to empty itself to load the imported crude. The container also has to be washed to ensure that the quality of imported crude is not diluted. So it is rinsed and the waste water mixed with oil is released into the sea. Convenient.

    Ballasting    g

Now a ship carrying some other cargo will travel comparatively empty from point A, get loaded at point B and return with weight. To balance the weight when it is not loaded, it fills up water in its tank, called a ballast tank. It pumps in sea water, stores it and then pumps it out, with oil residues at the time of loading. It must be noted here, that most of the ships by design, to save space, have the same tank for storing water and oil. The oil floats above water. This makes mixing inevitable. Hence the ballast always has oil content.

    Bilge discharge   

Bilge is the lowest compartment in a ship. This collects all the waste water which does not drain off from the side of the decks. This water must be pumped out, because if it becomes too full, it threatens to sink the ship. Bilge water can be found aboard every vessel and contains all kinds of waste- oil, urine, detergents, solvents and chemicals.

     Crude washing    

This method involves cleaning out tanks not with water but with crude oil, to give them a shine. The process is usually completed with water rinse, which is again, pumped into the sea. A naval official, willing not to be named says “Ship is like our house, we have to keep it clean.

Just like everyone else dumps garbage of their house out, we do it in sea. Where else can we?” Clearly, every ship commits these crimes as a matter of course. In the process, making the oceans dirtier and more polluted. Is there any way to monitor or regulate these practices?

    The spill drill    

The maritime regulations were introduced in 1967, when a tanker, Torrey Canyon, ran aground and spilled its entire cargo of 120,000 tonnes of crude oil straight into the sea.

Nobody knew how to clean up the mess. So the International Maritime Organisation was formed to do a technical and legal assessment of the incident. In1973 the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships was formulated, and all countries, including India became a party to it.

They agreed that “accidental pollution was spectacular, but operational pollution was still the bigger threat.” In 1978, the convention adopted more measures related to the design of tankers and regular operations.

This finally came into force on 2 October, 1983, as International Convention for Prevention of Marine Pollution (MARPOL 73/78).



    India - cost to coast   

In India, the Indian Coast Guards, who protect the off shore resources of the country, are also the custodians of marine ecosystem. India prepared its own National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan, (NOSDCP) in 1996. It is a framework to allot specific responsibilities to different players, public and private. The Coast guards monitor the sea upto 200 nautical miles from the shore. Wherever they spot oil, they photograph it, take a sample, and report. A notice is given to the owner of the ship and he is made to cover the costs, using the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

Till now however only one person has been prosecuted, admits A. Athinarayan, Director, Department of Fisheries and Environment, (F&E) and Indian National Coast Guard. Only five Indian ports have the mandatory waste oil reception facility, and even these do not function efficiently. “If we call up and enquire, the port administration says yes, but when a ship is sent, they say no”, rues Commandent Donny Michael, Joint Director, (F&E), Coast Guard. He adds, “We don’t have the infrastructure to re-use the waste oil. Besides, the customs department considers this as a form of imported oil, and levies duty over it, making it cheaper to simply pour it into the sea.” No end to excuses. And the spill.



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Ocean drain - The oil spill saga