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Return to a dangerous normal (Hiindu)

The hurry to declare the clean-up operation complete raises questions that go beyond just the specifics of the oil spill on the Chennai coast

On January 14, 2017, Ennore fisherfolk and the Save Ennore Creek campaign released a song called “Chennai Poromboke Paadal” spotlighting Ennore as an environmental crime scene (disclosure: this writer was involved in the production of the song). Poromboke is an ancient Tamil revenue term describing areas reserved for communal use such as the seashore, grazing grounds, and the margins of wetlands. Sung by Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, the song decries the degradation of the word and the devaluation of the geographies it denotes. It uses the pollution and encroachment of the Ennore Creek to make the case for reclaiming the word and healing the creek.

Barely a fortnight later, two ships collided off Kamarajar Port Limited’s (KPL) harbour in Ennore. The consequent oil spill, the disaster that is unfolding in the name of containment and remediation, and the hurry to declare the clean-up operation complete raise questions that go beyond the incidents of this last week.

More than a week after the accident, there is no clarity on the quantity and nature of the material that spilled on January 28. This is not surprising. Denial, downplaying and buck-passing are standard disaster response protocol that have stood the test of time from Bhopal to Kodaikanal to the Chennai floods.

Disasters are great teachers. The lessons though are never only about the case in point.

Criminal nonchalance

Despite the visibly oil-coated coastline, the Coast Guard, KPL and various ministers have sought to underplay the disaster by referring to the spill as minor or a non-incident, and its environmental effects as negligible, nil or temporary. This nonchalance towards a toxic, inflammable chemical cocktail has emboldened the state to deploy untrained, bucket-wielding student volunteers, fishermen and conservancy workers to handle toxic oil with inadequate protective gear.

Petroleum oils are complex mixtures of chemicals that are toxic, bioaccumulative and persistent in the environment. Some, like benzene, are known human carcinogens. They enter the body through inhalation, ingestion and the skin. An oil spill clean-up is a hazardous waste remediation exercise. But the world watched as Chennai’s youth rolled up their sleeves and scooped the oily emulsion bare-handed by the bucketful.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, who have made a virtue of gutting environmental due diligence to expedite project approvals and ease the doing of business, are yet to utter a word about the spill. No advisories on the toxicity of the spilled material have been issued. No prosecution has been launched for violation of environmental laws by various agents.

If this is how hazardous waste is cleaned in full view of the world, one wonders what crimes will be committed while cleaning up sites like the Bhopal factory, Unilever’s mercury-contaminated site in Kodaikanal, or the DDT-laced soils of Hindustan Insecticides in Eloor, Kerala — that are off-limits to citizens.

Clean-up complete?

In 1996, Union Carbide handed over its factory to the Madhya Pradesh government stating that the clean-up was complete. Twenty years later, the site remains contaminated and begging for a real clean-up.

In Ennore too, the Coast Guard has been threatening to complete the clean-up in a couple of days — less than 10 days from when it commenced. Ending the clean-up should not be determined by the stamina of the executing agency, but by the results of post-remediation assessments.

The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services’ computer model on the first day of the spill estimated that for a 20-tonne spill at this time of the year at Ennore, more than 60% would be beached by the end of the ninth day. What has been removed is the weathered oil and sludge from the nearshore sea and the accessible parts of the intertidal area. The rocks remain covered with oil, and the gaps between rocks filled with toxic oily residues. Standard practice is to use warm high-pressure water and foams to remove oil from such terrain. Given that only buckets were in evidence, it is safe to assume that KPL or the Coast Guard do not have what it takes to clean spills that affect such rocky shores.

What is normal?

Even after a thorough job of removing the beached oil, talking about a return to normal is problematic. Chennai’s seas and the Ennore Creek were in a state of crisis prior to the spill. The spill is the latest in a series of insults on the estuarine and marine habitats. As you read this, KPL — a key agent in the unfolding drama — is dumping dredged sand onto salt pans that are part of the Ennore wetlands. The petrochemical industries in Manali are discharging tonnes of oily chemical effluents into the creek and the sea. The power plants in the area are discharging their coal ash and hot waste water into the wetlands. Our regulators know all this and do nothing to enforce the law.

It is this normal that is being offered to us at the culmination of the clean-up. Thanks to the spill, the media glare is spotlighting the holes in our governance infrastructure. The clean-up will only address the toxic oily residues, and even that only to the extent that public pressure persists. The holes will remain. This governance deficit needs to be fixed if we are to avert the death of our life-support systems through the slow-motion disaster of day-to-day pollution or shock incidents like oil spills.


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