Coast Guard mops up another oil spill

BARELY four months after the Indian Coast Guard tackled an oil spill caused by a tanker collision near the Andaman and Nicobar islands (Down To Earth, February 28, 1993), it was called to combat another spill off the west coast this time.

At 8 am on May 17, the main pipeline that conveys 41,720 tonnes of crude oil daily from 400 oilfields in Bombay High to the mainland, burst about a metre above sea level. Within hours, 6,000 tonnes of oil gushed into the sea, forming a half-km by 5-km slick about 165 km northwest of Bombay. The Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) immediately shut down the huge oilfield complex.

Minister of state for environment and forests Kamal Nath visited the site and said ONGC would be hauled over the coals for not having guarded against such a mishap. On June 2, the day the repaired pipeline was put back into operation, the ministry slapped ONGC with a show-cause notice, seeking an explanation for not having complied with the guidelines set down for environment protection. ONGC has two weeks to reply, failing which environmental clearances for its installations will be withdrawn.

ONGC's western region director W M Mahajan defended his organisation, saying the Coast Guard was informed immediately after the leak and a crisis management group and four control rooms were set up within an hour. Mopping-up operations began the same day and the Coast Guard undertook a couple of sorties to spray chemical dispersants. Mahajan refuted charges that ONGC had been negligent of the environment, saying the operation had been cleared by the environment ministry.

The National Institute of Oceanography is studying the environmental impact of the spill and a preliminary report was to be ready by June-end.

But neither Nath nor Mahajan referred to the cause of the accident: poor maintenance of the highly corrosion-prone pipeline. Investigations show sea water had eroded the thickness of the pipeline from 19 mm to 16 mm. International petroleum industry procedures require ONGC to check and maintain pipelines every six months, but records show otherwise. After an inspection in August 1992, the pipeline was inspected only in early May by a UK-based firm, Pipeline Technologists. The pipeline, however, ruptured before any corrective action could be taken.

A former petroleum secretary says lack of funds led to poor maintenance. Between 1975 and 1992, the Union government collected Rs 18,458 crore as cess on indigenous crude, but less than 5 per cent was released to the oil industry, and no allocation was made at all in 1992-93. He said, "Instead of heeding warnings from ONGC on the need for preventive maintenance, the government pushed for maximum production."

Some environmentalists blame ONGC for not drawing up a contingency environment management plan and others contend the ministry should have ensured such a plan was ready. However, none of them was able to explain what difference the plan would have made.

C K Varshney, head of the environmental science department at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says neither the ministry nor ONGC can justify neglecting the plan. Varshney says by issuing the show-cause notice, the environment ministry has only sought to divert attention from its own failure to draw up contingency guidelines. Ultimately, it could turn out ONGC has been more sinned against than it has sinned.