NEW DELHI • Thousands of volunteers and Indian Coast Guard personnel are working to clean sludge from shores near Chennai, more than a week after an oil spill that activists said could have dire repercussions for wildlife and fishery.
Officials disagreed last Friday over who was to blame for the failure to contain the spill.
Commandant Rahul Dev Sharma, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said at least 20 tonnes of oil had leaked into the Bay of Bengal. The spill occurred two Saturdays ago after two tankers, one empty and the other carrying petroleum, collided near Chennai, he said.
Port officials noticed oil on the water's surface that evening but thought it was a minor leak from one of the ships, said Mr Atulya Mishra, Environment Secretary for the state of Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital.
But by Sunday, oil was billowing towards the coast, most of it collecting at a fishing village, Radhakrishna Nagar, Mr Mishra said. About 40km of coastline was affected.
"Clearing the sea of the sludge is a never-ending process," he said. "We have 2,000 people manually trying to empty the sea of the sludge, and also machines."
Tamil Nadu's Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar told the state assembly earlier last week that only one tonne of oil had leaked, The Indian Express reported. Mr Mishra said the Coast Guard should have reacted sooner.
"Had the spill been contained by the Coast Guard as soon as (it) started, while it was still at sea, we would not have seen such vast amounts of sludge near the tidal areas," he said.
The spill threatens a population of olive ridley sea turtles that have been nesting on the Chennai coast for 40 years, according to Mr V. Arun, coordinator of the Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network.
The turtles are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Mr Arun said he had seen turtles and crabs "smothered by oil" on the shore near Chennai.
Mr M. D. Dayalan, president of the Chennai-based Indian Fishermen's Association, last week said many of the estimated 100,000 fishermen in villages along the coast have had to leave the area.