There is “no damage to the environment like oil pollution”. These are the famous words of the Kamarajar Port Ltd company in Chennai, India, where on the 28th January 2017 two oil tankers collided.

Oil is still rapidly spreading along the Ennore coast nearly four weeks later, with the damage thought to be far worse than initially assumed. The fishermen are suffering or have left, marine wildlife is dying, beaches are getting covered in a thick layer of oil and now, to top it all off, the ‘pollution response team’ comprised mainly of volunteers are getting sick from the oil.

So why did they crash?

Chennai oil spill environmental catastrophe

Volunteers and rescue teams at work cleaning the sludge off the Bharathi Nagar Beach coastline in Chennai, India, on Sunday, February 5, 2017. On January 28, 2017, two ships collided off the Ennore Port leading to an oil spill of an estimated 20 tonnes. (Photo by Saumya Khandelwal/ Hindustan Times)

The BW Maple, a gas carrier, travelling from Qatar was leaving the Karmarajar Port in Chennai, India at 3:30am on January 28th. As it left the port, the MT Dawn Kanchipuram, another tanker, this time carrying 32,813 tonnes of petroleum lubricant, was heading towards it. On a normal day or night, these two ships would have sailed past each other without a problem, but for a reason that is still being debated, the BW Maple veered wildly off course and straight into the MT Dawn Kanchipuram’s path.

Both ships attempted evasive action, spinning and turning, but without communicating, they only managed to make the impact worse, with the sharp pointed front of the Maple piercing the side of the Dawn. The leaking oil was described as looking like blood gushing from a wound. The whole spectacle was painfully slow, such is the enormity of these ships, but the real pain is yet to come, as we discover the longer term damages involved.

Cover up?

Why two ships should crash where they did is still a mystery, and investigators are working hard to reveal what they think has been covered up. There appear to be mistruths on the amount of oil spilled, with some estimates saying just 75 of the 32,812 tonnes on board leaked, which seems unlikely. One official report said only 1 tonne had leaked and that everything was fine. The initial reaction from both crews has been questioned as suspicious by the Observer Research Foundation’s Maritime Policy Initiative, with an official saying “This is a massive screw up. Something isn’t adding up”.

Volunteer worker helping with the chennai oil spill

Volunteers and rescue teams at work cleaning the sludge off the Bharathi Nagar Beach coastline in Chennai, India, on Sunday, February 5, 2017. (Photo by Saumya Khandelwal/ Hindustan Times)

One thing that stands out in this whole debacle is the Captain’s decision-making. Much like in airports, there is someone watching from a tower to make sure that the vehicle leaves the port smoothly and with no hiccups. When they are satisfied, they end communication with the captain. In this case, the BW Maple ended the communication, and very early, which was unusual, though the observer continued to watch and then attempted to raise the alarm, sending a message to the captain saying “you are going to collide. Be careful”. It is not known if or when this message was seen before the collision.

Why are people getting sick?

When the collision occurred on the morning of the 28th January, nobody was expecting it, not the city’s inhabitants, not the fisherman, not the cleanup crews. Nobody. So the immediate response can only be seen as hugely impressive, as fishermen, firemen, sailors, residents and more all began doing their part to help. This great gesture may come with significant risks, as Indian doctors warn of the long-term health risks of helping without safety equipment or precautionary measures.

The type of oil that leaked is called ‘Bunker Oil’ and contains several chemicals that are harmful to humans, including Benzene, Xylene, and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Short term effects of coming into contact with these chemicals include skin and eye irritation, as well as respiratory problems. The long-term risks are leukemia, heart disease, and chronic body pain. What was a heroic immediate response to an emergency may end up causing their suffering.

People cleaning the Chennai oil spill

Credit: Hindustan Times

Indian doctors are fighting to ensure that the government respects the efforts made by these people and gives them long-term medical observation and care if required. Already many people are getting sick from their close proximity to the oil.

Shweta Narayan, an environmental activist from Healthy Energy Initiative said “You had volunteers who were cleaning up the oil spill in t-shirts and shorts, without gloves or even a mask. You also had the collected oil just sitting there on the roadside in open bins and tubs. Clearly, safety was not a priority”.

What can be done to clean up the oil?

Poor communications were not only at fault for the collision, but also the misinformation given to the coastguard by the port meant that the cleanup was mishandled, delayed and exacerbated. The longer the oil slicks are allowed to spread, the more impossible it is to contain them, and already the oil is washing up along 50km of beaches, solidifying itself to the sand and rocks.

Much of the cleanup is done manually, with 2,000 people on the ground trying to remove oil sludge from the ocean, with the help of many machines. The men stand in lines, passing buckets of black sludge up the line and empty buckets back down. Fighting the waves and tide, as well as the slippery oil, they struggle to stand and face great difficulty in picking up the floating sludge.

Four weeks after the collision, this is still the daily scene, and it will look this way for many months. In years to come, health problems will arise and the marine biodiversity will be significantly lacking.

Watch the satellite version of the crash below: