Accident: Chennai Oil Spill – A Disaster Due To Miscommunication

The morning of January 28 brought bad news for Chennai residents. Two ships, The BW Maple carrying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from Ran Laffan in Qatar, and The Dawn Kanchipuram loaded with petroleum lubricating oil collided near Kamaraj port in Ennore. Kamaraj is a busy port near Chennai which handles most of the vessels loaded with the primary elements that fuel the Indian economy: oil, gas, coal, and iron ore.


The ship BW Maple (UK flag) collided with the Dawn Kanchipuram (Indian flag) just two nautical miles (3.7 km) off the Kamaraj port at Ennore near Chennai at around 4 am on Saturday morning. This collision resulted in a vast amount of heavy fuel oil leakage into the sea. On the same day, the press release by Kamaraj port limited said that “there is no damage to the environment like oil pollution. All top officials of port closely monitoring and the situation is under control.” Initially, there was no evidence of oil leakage until black viscous oil began to come ashore with the tides.

On January 29, fishermen in nearby fishing harbors reported huge chunks of oil slick floating by the seashore. The Indian Coast Guard began an aerial investigation in order to get an idea of the damage and soon began with the clean-up operations. Fishermen were instructed to stay away from the sea due to the spill.

Oil started spreading to nearby seashores which further added to the problems already present in front of the Coast Guards. Reportedly, by February 1st The Indian Coast Guards already removed 30 tonnes of oil and estimated that another 20 tonnes of oil was needed to be removed. This makes a total of 70 tonnes of oil is wasted because of this unfortunate event.

The formation of oil slick created major problems while cleaning up. When oil mixes with sand and debris, it forms a thick viscous sludge that slowly oxidizes into a toxic brown mass that is called as “chocolate mousse” by the experts.

The oil which spilled from the Kanchipuram was a thick viscous mix of highly toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons that impacts literally every vital organ of all living beings. Oil’s stickiness made it hard to pump out or skim from the sea surface. When the municipal pumps did not work, the authorities fell back on thousands of poorly equipped workers with little more than plastic buckets. The unavailability of proper instruments for such oil clean-up was surprising because as per the reports, the Kamajar port had received specialized oil-slick equipment worth Rs. 3 crore only four months prior to the accident.

Finally, the Coast Guard used Oil Spill Dispersant (OSD), a chemical compound that is used to break down the oil slick into oil droplets which are relatively easy to remove. But on the other hand, this OCD is also poisonous which can seriously affect marine ecology.


Before directly jumping on the impacts of oil spill on the surrounding environment, let us see what really happens when oil interacts with the environment. When oil enters the marine system because of the spill, its composition continuously changes due to a process called ‘weathering’. As the oil starts to evaporate, emulsify, form sediment it begins to break down due to the combination of sunlight and microorganism. As we know oil is made up of biological materials by the process of ‘baking’ in the crust for millions of years, the same way it takes a long time to breakdown.

Ecological impacts:-

  1. Animals such as crabs, shrimp and other fishes that are mainly dependent on seabed deposits are exposed to the ingestion of oil. This affects respiratory organs such as gill or skin. Damage to these organs impacts respiration which could have lethal results.
  2. Oil slicks could rework the whole microbial processes and bring biological and physical changes to the marine environments.
  3. Once dispersed, oil droplets remain in the marine ecosystem for months or years. The heavy oil that sinks to the seafloor may collect on plankton that is food for marine animals, which in turn results in poisoning the entire food chain.

Economic and social impacts:-

  1. Oil spill which spread up to 35 km along the coast severely impacted the life of fishermen. They were not allowed to go fishing until oil slicks are removed from the area. After giving clearance for fishing also, people were not interested in buying from the market due to fear of poisoned seafood which in turn resulted in economic losses for the fishermen.
  2. According to reports, there is a total loss of around 100-tonne oil in the sea due to collision. Experts say that the damages will be visible in the long-term if, not now.
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