Sri Lanka struggles to contain Muthurajawela oil spill effects | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka struggles to contain Muthurajawela oil spill effects

Part of the coastal belt affected by the oil spill
Part of the coastal belt affected by the oil spill

As the global community celebrated International Coastal Cleanup Day (ICCD), yesterday (Saturday, September 15), Sri Lanka struggled with the consequences of the oil spill which occurred a week earlier on the western coast. It may only take a matter of few days to clean up an oil spill. However, it would take many years for the nature to wear off its effects and restore the eco-systems. Sometimes the damage is irreversible, say experts.

Oil spills, an occurrence which would have been strange to the country just a decade ago, seem to be happening quite frequently now. While many ‘strange phenomenon’ around the country has been blamed on climate change or global warming – washing our hands off responsibility, this cannot be so. Oil leakage from pipes is not a natural phenomenon. The most recent event which happened last Saturday, September 8, was a burst of a pipeline, carrying oil from a mooring facility, approximately 10 km offshore to the Muthurajawela Oil Refinery Complex while crude oil was being pumped from an oil tanker.

The brunt of the spill which was estimated to be aroud 25 metric tons,was borne by a two and a half kilo metre stretch of beach to the north of the pipeline, namely Dickovita in Wattala. The area constitutes a fishery harbour and beach side hotels boasting of sun and sand. Residents in the area complained of their livelihoods coming to a standstill due to the oil spill.

While all the socio-ecological and economical activities had ceased along the stretch of the oil spill “there won’t be any impact on the fish, as fishing in this area is carried out in deep water,” said, General Manager (GM) of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara. However, the marine and coastal ecosystem, smaller fish, marine algae, coastal plants and so on had been affected by the spill. He extended an apology to the public for the pollution caused by the oil spill.

As the agency with the sole responsibility to prevent, control, and manage pollution of the country’s marine environment MEPA won’t take marine pollution lightly. “We will take legal action against the polluter,” MEPA GM told Sunday Observer on Wednesday. While Pamunugama Police investigate the incident on a complaint lodged by the authority, MEPA staff currently engage in compiling evidence.

This is not the first oil leakage incident related to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and its affiliate Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Limited (CPSTL). On 31st December 2015 a similar incident happened within the lagoon in Thaldiyawatte, Dikovita due to an oil spill that had occurred during the cleaning of a pipeline carrying oil to the Muthurajawela Oil Refinery Complex. The case is being heard in the courts.

“This time, the fine will be higher and we would request to repair or replace the pipeline according to our mandate,” said MEPA GM. The Marine Pollution Prevention Act No. 35 of 2008, under which MEPA is established, mandates the authority to prescribe necessary action to prevent, mitigate and control marine environment pollution and to fine polluters up to rupees one million.

The authority along with its partner government and non-government institutions, tried to contain the oil spill. Over 300 persons from MEPA, Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG), Navy, Army, Air Force, Police and the staff of Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Limited (CPSTL) the company to which the ruptured pipeline belongs to, laboured side by side for days in containing the effects of the spill.

Dr. Turney Pradeep Kumara cautioned resident communities to be wary of their contact with the coast and the sea for about three more weeks. “We have done the maximum and cleaned about 70% of the spill. The rest we have to let the environment absorb and dispose slowly. It needs rain and the harsh sun to wither the effect,” he said. It would take several weeks for the beach to reach a usable state.

The preliminary assessments were carried out by the Navy coastal patrol vessels and Y12 aircrafts of the Air Force. Two coast guard ships, SLCGS Samaraksha and SLCGS Samudra Raksha were deployed in the offshore oil spill clean-up operation, with oil dispersals.

As these chemical oil dispersals are strong detergents, they could also generate adverse affects, “They were only used in high dilution areas over a 10 metre depth, with strong sea currents and waves,” explained MEPA GM. In an arduous manual operation, troops and civilians together collected the oil mixed sand filling hundreds of polythene sacks and pumped the floating slicks into bowsers to be sent to the oil storage facility at Muthurajawela. The remaining oil spread was soaked in using oil-skimmers, a special kind of fabric used in cleaning up oil spills.

The SL Navy issuing a press release, noted that the ecological damage caused by the oil spill could be minimised due to “the comprehensive knowledge and experience acquired through frequent oil spill exercises carried out by the naval personnel in collaboration with SLCG.” They committed to continue observation missions and to be on constant alert to protect aquatic and coastal resources partnering with SLCG and MEPA.

Meanwhile, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), in keeping with their mandate by the National Oil Spill Contingency Operational Plan (NOSCOP) began an environmental impact study. The objective is to assess the damage to the marine and coastal environment and the community caused by the oil spill, said Lead Researcher/Investigator Dr. Deeptha Amarathunga. The NARA team had conducted visual observations on the western coast from Bambalapitiya, in Colombo to Pitipana in Negombo. Though not much of the oil slick could be observed close to the southern point of Bambalapitiya, the actual affect could only be assessed after the lab analysis of samples collected, he said. NARA expects to release the preliminary report by end of the month. The preliminary report would also propose sites and ecosystems that need to be monitored and studied in detail. NARA would continue observations in these areas for an initial period of three to four months and would continue further if necessary, explained Amarathunga. They would continue to observe the impact on the fishing community as well as the marine and coastal fauna and flora.

Though the Sunday Observer contacted the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Limited (CPSTL), neither the Chairman, Dammika Ranatunga nor the Managing Director, SanjeevaWijeratne were available for comment.

 

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