November 05, 2009

Turning Turtle

Olive Ridley Turtle, Orissa beach (courtesy Kalinga Times)

We protest loudly enough at the unfair criminalisation of mariners and the acidic nature of PSC inspections; it is only fair that we should applaud authorities equally loudly when they get it right.

In the first prosecution under the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act, the US recently sentenced Capt. Panageotis Lekkas of the ‘Theotokos’ to ten months: six months in jail followed by four months of community confinement. His crime? Failing to inform the US Coast Guard of a broken rudder and illegal discharge of oily waste. Lekkas will also pay a $4000 fine, be deported immediately after release and is banned from calling the US for three years thereafter. Twenty ships of the Greek ship manager Polembros Shipping have been similarly banned from calling at any US ports for the next three years. Polembros has also agreed to pay a $2.7 million dollar fine and another USD 100,000 community service payment to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The fate of the Chief Engineer and the Chief Officer will probably be similar; both have pleaded guilty to violating environmental laws and making false statements to the USCG.

Sometime early last year, the Theotokos crew discovered a two foot long crack in the rudder on the 1984 built ship and reported it verbally to the Owners. Not only was ballast water from the Afterpeak tank leaking out of this crack, oil from a fuel tank was found leaking into the Afterpeak as well, with obvious implications. Stupidly but not unusually, Lekkas ordered that the Afterpeak, and therefore indirectly the oil from the leaking fuel tank, be pumped overboard at sea. He didn’t stop there, though. He had the Chief Officer obstruct the sounding pipe to the Afterpeak so that water would show on the sounding line and not oil in case of an inspection.

Meanwhile, Chief Engineer Stamou was doing his bit for the cause. The Oily Water Separator had stopped working sometime ago; after reporting it to the Superintendent on the phone, the Chief pumped the bilges directly overboard without (obviously) recording anything in the Oil Record Book. Again, stupid but not unusual.

They were caught by the Coast Guard in New Orleans in October last year. Everybody, including Palembros, pleaded guilty to mostly everything; easy to do once you are caught with your pants down.

The Theotokos story played itself out over the last two years. Meanwhile, just this year, in iron ore related casualties off the coast of India, both the Asian Forest and the Black Rose went down. The Asian Forest sank off Mangalore in July and had leaked oil twice, the last time in September. Officials pooh poohed the quantity of the oil that leaked out, but the fact remains that the ship was carrying almost 400 tonnes of bunkers when she sank. Even with plugged leaks, as authorities claim, she still poses a pollution risk.

The Black Rose, on the other hand, sank off Paradip on September 9. A month later, after finding that insurance and other documents related to the ship were fraudulent and that Paradip port would probably have to foot the cleanup bill, port authorities were still ‘preparing’ to appoint an agency to pump out almost a thousand tonnes of bunkers off the ship. "We are at present examining several tenders submitted for the purpose," one official said. As officials examined tenders and contemplated their navels, fishermen and others reported seeing thousands of dead fish at sea after the incident. Thousands more were reportedly washed ashore in Paradip. Greenpeace and others warned of ‘a devastating impact’ on the Gahirmata Marine Sanctuary just 30 miles away, home of the endangered Olive Ridley Turtles and at the Bitharkanika National Park, India’s second largest mangrove ecosystem.

Salvage work at the site finally started on Oct 23, a month and a half after the accident and after a US salvage company was appointed. As if this delay was not criminal enough, work was suspended for a while almost immediately because of paperwork and bureaucratic delays at the Paradip Port Trust and because Customs refused to permit the transportation of the salvaged oil by road. Only in India.

And, as is usual in indifferent India, this story is nowhere in the collective psyche of a nation used to littering, drinking milk made out of detergent and urea and throwing its industrial and household garbage out in the street. Par for the course.

The Black Rose incident highlights to me, once again, how ill prepared we are for development. At a time when infrastructure is the latest buzzword and port projects seem to be announced on a weekly basis, we have essentially no coherent environmental policy or disaster management infrastructure in place. We have many things to learn. For one, there is no evidence of India having access to, leave alone using, the GM bacteria and other advanced technology used elsewhere to fight oil spills. Secondly, as the Paradip incident demonstrates, we seem to have no domestic setup in place; we need companies from abroad to come and clean up our coast. As when other disasters strike, we have no plan, no training, no equipment, no allocations, no personnel, no will and, therefore, no clue. Thirdly, even though Jairam Ramesh’s Ministry of Environment and Forests is making appropriate noises and feeding titillating sound bytes to the media regularly, precious little timely progress is made after any incident, when babudom indulges in its favourite sport: buck passing.

I believe that the pathetic (and apathetic) response of our government, its regulators, the shipping industry in particular and civil society at large, coupled with the almost fated corruption in our public and private systems, will collectively ensure that our coastline will be environmentally decimated by blinkered development within a lifetime.

To continue with the spotlight on Orissa, there are ten more ports being planned in the next decade along its 487 km coastline. Ironically, on the same day that the Black Rose salvage finally commenced, the Orissa government signed a MoU with the Aditya Birla Group for the setting up of a Rs 1500 crore port at Chudamani. This, despite a Public Interest Litigation that raises serious concerns about the impact of this development on the Olive Ridley Turtle in particular and the broader marine environment in general.

Other questions are being raised about single hulled tankers being dumped to trade on Indian coastlines and radioactive ships being sent to be broken up at Alang. I am confident that these interrogations will remain unanswered; the historical evidence is not encouraging here at all. (Can you imagine the Black Rose or Platinum II incident playing out similarly elsewhere, barring in a few underdeveloped African countries? I can’t)

Therefore, for a change, I applaud the US for doing the right thing even as I hold the Indian response, preparedness and will to protect its environment in contempt. It is not enough, any longer, to cry (as we do at International Climate Change conventions) that the West must pay for cleaning up the environment proportionally to its contribution to the destruction of nature. It is not enough, any longer, for India to ape the turtle and stay within its shell, smug and blinkered on the path of extinction. Our policies, preparedness and infrastructure to protect our coastline must radically change. Critically, so must our will. We are not Somalia. The maritime industry, in particular, must stand up and be counted. We must stick our necks out; that is a precondition to any turtle making progress.

Of course, we have another option. We could always, and along with our oceans and seas, turn turtle and die.