Insights into Editorial: Tarred by the oil spill

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Insights into Editorial: Tarred by the oil spill 



The recent oil spill in Chennai has created panic among locals and the officials are now gearing up for possible challenges to the environment in near future. The spill occurred due to a collision between two ships. A large quantity of oil was released into the sea, affecting marine life and livelihoods of coastal communities.


What’s the main concern now?

This incident comes at a time when there is steadily declining pollution due to such incidents. Ship collisions are less common today because GPS-based navigation systems have made their operation much safer. Also, port authorities have failed to prevent the spread of oil spill. Such failure calls into question the efficacy of the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan that is updated periodically for all stakeholders, notably ports, under the leadership of the Coast Guard.

Effects of oil spill:

  • Upto two-thirds of an oil-spill can evaporate in the first few days, but before the light, toxic compounds evaporate, they kill fish and animal life and pose harm to future generations.
  • The thick oil also washes ashore creating reservoirs on the beaches of toxic chemicals that can have a lasting effect on the environment.
  • The immediate impact of an oil slick is the mass death of fish and turtles and of birds because they cannot fly with wings coated by heavy oil.
  • Because the oil forms a film on the surface, it reduces the amount of light and oxygen passing into the water. This suffocates marine life.
  • The oil destabilises the entire marine food chain, beginning with plankton, microscopic organisms that live in ocean depths, being deprived of the sunlight they need to make food. The death of plankton means death for marine animals that feed on them and so on up the food chain to humans.
  • Toxic chemicals leached from the oil and some of the oil itself sink to the seabed, damaging coral reefs and endangering the fish.
  • The shore lines and sandy beaches in coastal areas may also be an indirect victim of oil water pollution. The oil contaminated water is usually swept across the shoreline by the waves in high tides. This makes the beaches dirty and unsafe for the human population as well. Thus, coastal areas are continuously contaminated due to oil pollution.
  • Oil pollution seriously degrades the water quality on a long-term basis. Being insoluble in water, oily water always exists as bi-layer. Also, at the shore lines, the current of waves might even turn the oily water into a turbid oil water emulsion (wherein the oil and water exist as a single turbid phase due to constant mechanical mixing forces). This degrades the quality of water further.
  • Tourism industry is greatly affected by oil spills and oil pollution. Due to increasing oil pollution on beaches and shorelines, recreational activities of tourists like boating, swimming, diving, adventure sports are taking a back seat. Unclean and unhealthy water will repel tourists from undertaking these activities completely.


How to prevent and control oil spills?

  • Quality cannot be compromised when it comes to ships and oil tankers in marine waters. Their mechanical parts and equipment need to pass strict quality checks to be proven safe against any oil spill hazards. Extra attention is required while installing the pipes in tankers. Any probable leakage issue should be eliminated before it sets out on the sea.
  • Government of all countries worldwide should treat oil pollution seriously and come up with a suitable disaster management plan to deal with this problem. Local environmental agencies should also step up their action plans towards the recovery of polluted water bodies. A plan should be developed to direct the restoration process and incorporate things like coral and plantation reconstruction, shoreline improvements and transport restrictions across water bodies.
  • Bioremediation can also be used. When bacteria are used to clean up oil spills in the marine environment, it is termed as bioremediation. Bioremediation is a process that uses natural decomposers and plant enzymes to treat the contaminated water.
  • Regular skimmers need to be employed in marine water to monitor and control oil spills. Skimmers are boats that help scoop the spilled oil from the surface of the polluted water. This way immediate action can be taken in case of accidents to avoid long-term damage in serious proportions.
  • The government should have a 24/7 emergency team ready for any marine accidents and oil spill incidents. An effective team will facilitate immediate clean up of the mess that any such incidents might cause.
  • Several laws and regulations have been operational since long in most of the countries, but still oil pollution has been on the rise. The laws should be implemented on ground level and facilities should be checked regularly for proper maintenance and documentation of their procedures for discharge as well as loading. Also, mock drills should be mandatory for all vessels, so as to be prepared to clean up oil spills in emergency situations.
  • The oil spills in the water bodies can be cleaned up the chemical way. Using sorbents (big sponges which absorb oil) oil spills can be cleaned. Also, chemical dispersants effectively break down oil into its corresponding chemical constituents.
  • Physical methods can also be employed for cleaning oil spills. Vacuum trucks can suck up spilled oil from the beaches and the surface of water. Oil spills in beaches may also contaminate ocean water. So, shovels and road machinery can be used to clean up oil on the beach. Oil contaminated sand and gravel can be picked up and moved away, so that the waves hitting the shores do not pick up the oily residues to cause oil water pollution. Floating barriers called ‘booms’ can also be used to prevent oil pollution. This is usually done by planting a large boom around a leaking oil tanker to collect it before it causes massive water contamination.


National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan:

India promulgated National oil spill Disaster contingency plan (NOS-DCP) in the year 1996. Coast guard was designated as central coordination authority.


The objectives of the plan are:

  • To develop appropriate and effective systems for the detection and reporting of spillage of oil.
  • To ensure prompt response to prevent, control, and combat oil pollution.
  • To ensure that adequate protection is provided to the public health and welfare, and the marine environment.
  • To ensure that appropriate response techniques are employed to prevent, control, and combat oil pollution, and dispose off recovered material in an environmentally accepted manner.
  • To ensure that complete and accurate records are maintained of all expenditure to facilitate cost of recovery.


International efforts in this regard:

The volume of oil shipped annually since 1985 has doubled. Following the 119,000-tonne oil spill when the Torrey Canyon ran aground off the west coast of England in 1967, it was agreed marine pollution could be tackled only at an international level and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) was chosen to coordinate efforts worldwide.

  • In 1973, the IMO adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in 1989, 90 countries under the auspices of the IMO drew up an emergency system to deal with spills.
  • Called the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation 1990, it details the steps to be taken to clean up slicks and requires ships to prepare pollution emergency plans. It limits oil company liability to US $80 million, though cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill cost more than $2 billion. However, the 1990 convention provides for a special fund to be set up from contributions from shipping companies.
  • Finally, the IMO ruled that by July 1993, all tankers must have double hulls for additional safety and all single-hulled ships must be phased out by 1995.



Obfuscation of facts after an oil spill is counterproductive, since the impact is prolonged; moreover, it 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. 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.

Considerable oil pollution is caused not just by catastrophes but through the discharge of ballast, sludge and water used for the cleaning of tanks. On the other hand, the efficacy of chemical dispersants to degrade oil at sea remains controversial. All this underscores the importance of 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.