Ennore: How not to clean up oil-spills

TV reporters posed with oil-soaked gloves to dramatise the effect, not knowing they were handling toxic chemicals, says a report that pulls up amateurish clean-up of Chennai coast after the oil-spill

Photos courtesy: Twitter.com/CemShweta
Photos courtesy: Twitter.com/CemShweta

NH Web Desk

While a few foreign nationals drafted to help clean up the oil spill off the Chennai coast used full body overalls, helmets, cotton gloves and boots, most of the Indians, largely volunteers, policemen, sanitation workers and firemen, were denied the basic protective gear, reveals the report of a fact-finding committee of doctors and scientists.

The Healthy Energy Initiative sponsored the study after two tankers MT BW Maple and MT Dawn Kanchipuram, one carrying LPG and the other carrying petroleum collided near Ennore off the Chennai coast early in the morning on January 28. While initial reports spoke of a minor oil spill of 40 tonnes, later reports alleged that the spill had been under-estimated and could be 10 times bigger than the original estimate. The ship owners were blamed for misleading the Government.

The committee found that the authorities had little clue about how to handle the situation. The report mentions:

  • The area was not cordoned off with the result that there were 20,000 onlookers on a Sunday (February 5) busy taking selfies and watching the clean-up
  • Personal Protective Gear (PPG) were inadequate and most Indian volunteers did not have respirator masks, etc
  • The firemen, rescue workers and sanitary workers worked in t-shirts and shorts and were given neither gloves, masks or boots
  • Authorities erred in not providing for a separate washing area and allowing volunteers to clean up at sources of drinking water.

A medical camp was set up a week after the spill but no effort was made to educate people engaged in the clean-up about the toxins they were engaged in handling. Two onlookers apparently had a fall on the rocks while several volunteers complained of nausea, vomiting, heart-burn and reddening of the eye. Allowing volunteers to eat and drink with oil-soaked limbs could have aggravated health issues.

“The oil-spill is a chemical disaster that requires training and expertise in its cleanup. Most of the personnel engaged in the cleanup were untrained volunteers.”
Dr Shruthee SG

The spill, the committee pointed out, contained Benzene which is known to cause leukemia in human beings and carcinogenic elements like Xylene and Toluene. Toluene can cause kidney and liver damage, and exposure to Xylene can lead to visual blurring, tremors, heart beat irregularities, paralysis,” said Dr Amaran M, a member of the mission.

“The oil-spill is a chemical disaster that requires training and expertise in its cleanup. Most of the personnel engaged in the cleanup were untrained volunteers,” said Dr Shruthee SG, a member of the fact-finding team that visited Bharathiyar Nagar on Ennore Expressway ten days after the oil spill. She also lamented the non-use of protective gear that is absolutely essential while handling hazardous waste.

In a press release issued in Chennai, the committee declared, “It was shocking that no measures were taken to protect the safety of children—a school opposite the site of the spill was functioning despite students complaining of nausea and sickness.”

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Published: 22 Feb 2017, 4:36 PM