By Team Insight
Special Reporting by Darshana Sanjeewa Balasuriya and Sheain Fernandopulle
A Panama-flagged supertanker carrying some 2 million barrels of oil caught fire off the east coast of Sri Lanka, sounding alarm bells over an impending catastrophe in the Indian Ocean. In a dramatic attempt to avert a major environmental disaster the Sri Lankan Navy and Air Force battled the raging fire for two days straight. On Thursday, the forces were joined by Russian and Indian vessels to douse the fire on the massive oil tanker.
The supertanker which was carrying 270,000 tonnes of crude oil from Kuwait to India issued a distress call after an explosion in the tanker's engine room on Thursday morning, which killed one Filipinio crew member. A collaborative search and rescue operation was launched promptly to rescue to the remaining crew, 17 Filipino and five Greek members.
While measures are underway to tow the distressed vessel towards the deap seas, away from the island, the owners of the vessel have now handed it over to an international salvage company.
Although Sri Lankan authorities including the Disaster Management Centre have said that there is no immediate danger of an oil spill, or of the tanker exploding or breaking apart, the incident has sparked fears over a major oil spill in the region.
Addressing a media briefing Rear Admiral Y. N. Jayaratne reiterated that at present there is no possibility of an oil spill, as the slow-drifting tanker lies in the deep sea, some 13 nautical miles away from the island. Rescue teams were also attempting to push back the destroyed vessel as it drifted closer to the coast.
However reports of a considerable crack, estimated to be several metres in the New Diamond's hull above the water level, have emerged. Both India and Sri Lanka have meanwhile deployed reconnaissance helicopters to track the ship's movements. It has been reported that the fire in the rear end was seemingly contained by Friday evening and that the blaze had not yet reached the crude. “The live flames have now died down and there is only white smoke emanating from the vessel,” Jayaratne said.
Meanwhile the Meteorology Department said the Sri Lankan and Indian coast are not in immediate threat of being affected by oil pollutants. Authorities are currently monitoring the oil spill caused by the oil tanker explosion off the Southern coast of Sri Lanka.
The Met Department working together with the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services has run numerical models and simulations based on available data to identify that the drift pattern of the oil spill will be towards the South and moving offshore by Friday evening. (September 4)
According to the simulations the oil spill is expected to drift towards the Southeast seas by Saturday evening (September 5). "The next day, the pollutant drift is towards the Northeast and moves offshore. As per the simulations and considering the worst case scenario of spillage, the Sri Lankan coast and the Indian coast are not under threat of being affected by oil pollutants until September 6.
The Met Department estimates the worst case scenario of spillage to be around 70,000 MT of crude oil and 1,700 MT of Diesel oil. The hypothetical forecasts issued by the Met Department are evaluated routinely for different locations, while the Department will continue to monitor and issue periodic updates.
Meanwhile the chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Dharshani Lahandapura said that if an oil spill takes place it would be considered as a Criminal incident. She said MEPA had sought advice from the Attorney General’s department pertaining to the process of claiming compensation from the ship owners, Liberian-registered Porto Emporios Shipping Inc, the insurance company and the respective parties who are responsible. She added that Sri Lanka had the minimal resources to contain a major oil spill.
Despite the fire being doused to a satisfactory degree, the risk of damage that would cause to the environment still remains visible.
Oil is one of the most abundant pollutants in the oceans. About 3 million metric tons of oil contaminates the oceans annually. Oil spills vary in their severity and the extent of damage they cause. This can be attributed to variations in the oil type, the location of the spill, and the weather conditions present.
The spread and behaviour of spilt oil in the seas is decided by a variety of chemical, physical and biological processes. But irrespective of these, oil spills are a serious concern as they can inflict a lot of damage to the ecosystem. The effects are experienced not only in the area of the spill, but can also expand over vast regions to negatively impact shorelines and terrestrial wildlife thousands of metres away from the site of the spill.
The use of oil booms is a very simple and popular method of controlling oil spills. Equipment called containment booms acts like a fence to prevent the oil from further spreading or floating away. Booms float on the water surface and have three parts –
• A ‘freeboard’ is the part that rises above the water surface, containing the oil and preventing it from splashing over the top
• A ‘skirt’ is placed below the surface and keeps the oil from being squeezed under the booms and escaping
• A kind of cable or chain that connects the parts to strengthen and stabilize the boom. Connected sections of the boom are placed around the area of the oil spill until it is totally surrounded and contained.
Many major oil spills have taken place in recent years, the Exxon Valdez in 1989, the Prestige in 2002, and the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Oil spills will continue to be a pressing problem and source of pollution as long as ships move most of the petroleum products around the world, and exploration of oil from oceanic resources is steadily on the rise.
Nevertheless, oil spills mostly end up occurring accidentally, and thus it becomes increasingly important to employ various cleanup methods for tackling the menace they could pose to the marine ecosystem.
Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) General Manager Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara said by any means, if the oil gets mixed with waters, that would pose a monumental impact on the Sri Lankan waters resulting in it spreading to the shore.
Dr. Pradeep Kumara said that there would also be an effect on marine species especially whales, dolphins and turtles which are abundantly seen in the seas off Ampara.
"These species have to come out of the water to breath like human beings. Therefore, if there is any oil leak, that would pose life threats to them. We as MEPA are entitled and bound to protect these species and thus we are taking all the measures to protect the lives of these species, which are less in number.
"If we lose them, that is a great loss for our economy as they attract tourists a lot by means of we earn foreign exchange. “This situation also poses a grave threat to the fishing community. The people living along the coastal belt of the East are advised not to wander in the areas where the risk is imminent until the relevant authorities assure the safety of the area,” he said.
While raising concerns about a massive destruction in the marine diversity in the Sri Lankan seas in case of an oil spill, renowned Sri Lankan marine biologist and ocean educator Asha de Vos said that the authorities need to take every possible action to douse the fire as early as possible to prevent a catastrophe.
De Vos said that if an oil spill occurs, it would create a layer on the ocean surface and it would be difficult to dissolve it. Meanwhile, she criticized that people don’t generally react or care for the ocean, except when an incident takes place. “We have to understand that the ocean is a space that is very much important for us. In that sense, the pubic have to demand some sort of action from the government to minimize the possible damage this incident can occur,” she said.
In a press conference today, Maldivian officials have told foreign media that despite current and winds were in favor of the Maldives, the government of Maldives was closely monitoring the situation.
Maldivian minister at the president's office, Ahmed Naseem, called for precautionary measures in the Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,192 coral islands. The Maldives is located about 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) southwest of Sri Lanka.
"Maldives needs to watch this oil spill carefully and take all precautions to prevent it from reaching her shores. This could be a major disaster," Naseem said on Twitter.
FACTBOX: THE NEW DIAMOND
Following are some major oil spills involving ships and tankers.
1979 - The Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain, two fully loaded oil tankers, collided 10 miles (16.1 kms)off the coast of Tobago in a tropical rainstorm, spilling more than 2.1 million barrels of oil into the Caribbean.
1983 - The Castillo de Bellver exploded and sank off the coast of Cape Town carrying roughly 250,000 tonnes of crude oil.
1988 - The fully loaded tanker Odyssey operated by Polembros Shipping exploded and sank in the North Atlantic 700 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, spilling 1 million barrels of oil.
1989 - The Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, hit Prince William Sound in Alaska, dumping more than 250,000 barrels of crude oil into the sea killing animals and plants throughout Prince William Sound.
The accident, considered one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters, led to new rules requiring double-hulled ships in the region.
1991 - The oil tanker ABT Summer exploded about 900 miles off the coast of Angola, spilling its entire cargo of 1.9 million barrels at sea.
1996 - The Sea Empress went down on the rocks off Milford Haven on Britain's west coast in 1996, in one of the country's worst environmental disasters that saw over 70,000 tonnes of oil spilled.
1999 - The tanker Erika sank during a storm in December, leaking thousands of tonnes of oil into the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France and causing a major environmental disaster.
2018 - The suezmax Sanchi tanker carrying 136,000 tonnes of Iranian condensate collided with a cargo ship off Shanghai, caught fire and burned for a week. All 32 crew onboard were killed. Japan's Coast Guard said at the time that oil which washed up on the shores of its southern islands was highly likely to have come from Sanchi.
2020 - The Wakashio, a Japanese bulk carrier, struck a coral reef off Mauritius' coast in the Indian Ocean in July, spilling thousands of tonnes of crude oil into the sea and choking marine life in a pristine lagoon.
2020 - The New Diamond supertanker carrying about 2 million barrels of oil caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka in September with one of the 23 crew members presumed dead.
romesh Saturday, 05 September 2020 06:59 AM
Well done! Major environmental disaster averted. This would have impacted so many industries like Fishing, tourism, etc and so many jobs. Hats off to the Srilankan and the Indian team
dana Saturday, 05 September 2020 07:01 AM
send an invoice to the shipping line
Devinda Daulagala Wednesday, 09 September 2020 07:40 AM
Great job by the combined efforts of Sri Lanka and India. SL Navy is to be thanked. However, just because flames are not visible it does not mean the fire is put out nor is the threat over. Firefighters have to go inside the space and ensure ALL smouldering fires are put out and a fire watch is maintained. Most probably the ship will be taken to Singapore for Salvage operations. All the best.
kaluthanthrige Wednesday, 09 September 2020 12:00 PM
this is great oppertunaty to Sri lanka government to chick those vessels running via Sri Lanka waters and charge them who does not have proper responsibility,
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