Even now, Chennai's oil spill incident in January can affect larvae and juvenile fish

CHENNAI: The Chennai oil spill disaster is still unfolding. Though the issue with its massive ramifications has gone out of focus due to dramatic political developments in the State, the environmental damage it has caused and future threats it poses can’t be discounted, warn marine biologists.

The major worry now is the oil deposited on the seabed can harm larvae and juvenile fish during the current breeding season.

“This is the first litmus test for the Chennai coast. When the fishermen go back into the sea in June after the fishing ban is lifted, we would have a real sense of the extent of damage caused,” said RS Vasan, regional director, National Maritime Foundation.

Meanwhile, reliable sources in the Department of Environment (DoE) told Express that the State government has ‘finally’ formed a 13-member high-level expert committee to conduct an environment impact assessment study.

The committee has been given three months to file a consolidated report. The committee is headed by H Malleshappa, director, DoE, and the first meeting was held last week. Sources said the committee will also be finalising short-term and long-term restoration plans. Kamarajar Port, Chennai Port, IIT Madras, fisheries department, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), health department and couple of NGOs are on the committee.

Close to three months have lapsed since the massive oil spill has hit Chennai coast at 3:45 am on January 28 after two ships collided off Kamarajar Port coast in Ennore. Scientists at the Integrated Coastal and Marine Area Management (ICMAM) Project Directorate in Chennai, who are analysing the ecological footprint of the oil spill, said it has affected over 230 km of State coast from Pulicat to Cuddalore as on date.

A senior scientist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), which is the lead institute, said oil deposits on the seabed is one of the key aspects the committee will be looking into. “If need be, we will seek the help of external institutes like National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) for logistic support,” the scientist said. NIOT has the multidisciplinary research vessel Sagar Nidhi, which has a sub-bottom profiler that can quantify the pollution.

“Preliminary analysis showed significant damage to bottom and intertidal fauna, which are critical for the sustainability of the coastal ecosystem. Only an in-depth study will reveal the complete truth,” the official said.

Although the preliminary investigation initiated by Directorate General (DG) of Shipping, a statutory Maritime authority under Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, said the quantum of unaccounted oil from the vessel is 196 tonnes, ambiguity still exists.

Douglas Helton, expert, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Emergency Response Division), said heavy fuel oil (HFO) that has polluted the Chennai coast sinks rapidly to the bottom creating problems.