Chennai oil spill threatens livelihoods of 20,000 people, habitats of migrant birds

The fishing communities are seeking compensation and accountability for the oil spill.

WrittenBy:Nithya Pandian
A Kattukuppam fisherman.

More than 20,000 people residing on the banks of the Buckingham Canal in North Chennai’s Ennore have been severely affected by the massive oil spill from the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd refinery. Now, they prepare to face far-reaching consequences to their health as well as ecosystems, on which they depend on for a livelihood. 

Heavy deposits of oil had seeped out of CPCL premises on December 4 – the day Cyclone Michaung caused intense rains and flooding in Chennai – before entering the Buckingham Canal that flows from south to north across the city. The oil spread into the Ennore Creek, which is an arm of the Kosasthalaiyar River, finally entering the Bay of Bengal.

Speaking to The News Minute, inland fishers who depend on the Buckingham Canal, Ennore Creek, and the Kosasthalaiyar River for their livelihood, said they have lost their means of income due to this man-made disaster. 

They demand that the state government take immediate action to ensure this does not happen again at the CPCL or any other refinery. They also urge the government to direct the petroleum company, which functions under the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, to provide compensation for the loss they have incurred. 

Those affected by the oil spill include fishers from eight villages — Kattukuppam, Thazhanguppam, Chinnakuppam, Periyakuppam, Nattukuppam, Ennore Kuppam, Sivanpadai Veedhi, and Mugathuvaara Kuppam. 

Oil smeared feet of a fisherman.

‘Oil killed all the fish’

Some of them shared about their fears, that the ecosystem they hold dear will never be restored. “It has been 10 days since we went fishing,” they said, adding that they were afraid the situation would remain the same for another six to eight months, with no catches for them from the river. 

“The microclimatic conditions in the canal and the nearby mangroves make the ecosystem a breeding ground for fishes and prawns. The oil damaged the ecosystem and killed all the fish in the water. It will take at least six months for nature to restore this habitat for the fish to breed again, and that is if anything survives this disaster. Until then, we do not know what we should do to make ends meet,” said Raghuman, an inland fisherman.

He added that even if the habitat is restored, there is no guarantee that the fish will be healthy enough to be consumed. “People have already stopped buying fish from Ennore fishermen because of the years-long pollution that has damaged the river, other water bodies, and the ecosystem. There were a few people in the lower strata of society who would buy these fishes but for a cheaper price than their actual market value. But this incident will further distance customers,” he said.

Some fishers say they have been forced to sell fishes worth up to Rs 1,000 for just Rs 200 in the past. “That scenario may repeat now, or people may simply stop buying fish from us altogether,” they said.

Chinnaveera Muthu, a fisherman from the Kattukuppam village, recalled past incidents of oil spills, and how they impacted the migrant birds that fly in from farther distances to nest and hatch. He said, “There was an oil spill here many years ago. But that was a time when we did not have the network connection to let anyone know about our plights. At the time, the fishermen had ventured into the canal and removed the oil with their bare hands.” 

Muthu recalled another incident that occurred in the 90s, when they had to build a barricade and trench across the canal to stop the oil from spreading further. “Even then, we removed the oil with our bare hands without any actual help from the government or the company which leaked the water into the canal,” he said. 

The oil deposit on the shorelines of a canal in Chennai.

Unfolding ecological disaster, fishers’ demands 

There used to be thousands and thousands of migrant birds visiting Ennore Creek every year during the migratory season, Muthu said. “We do not see those colourful, vibrant birds in our locality anymore. Everything has been destroyed, including the lives of those lovely creatures.”

When The News Minute visited the Kattukuppam fishing hamlet, we found several birds were unable to fly, their feathers clogged with oil from the canal. The situation could eventually lead to the birds losing their buoyancy, causing them to drown in the water. If the oil is ingested, it could also severely affect their health. Such frequent contamination of the coastal birds’ habitats could also in turn challenge their diversity and population.

A member of the Kaattukuppam Meenava Podhunala Sevai Sangam, a fishermen’s union from Kattukuppam, said such anthropogenic disasters have forced hundreds of fishers to move away from their traditional fishing practices. 

“The canal and river that intersect the Ennore locality are not healthy anymore. The quality of the fish have gone down, and so have our customers. We cannot make a decent income from fishing because of this. In the last decade alone, a lot of fishers in the locality started to take up daily wage work. Now they are construction workers, conservancy workers, and even security guards. As of 2023, we only have 450 fishers in our village. If the microclimatic conditions and microorganisms are not revived, there will be hardly any fishers in the village in two years,” he said.

In a letter to the Tamil Nadu Fishermen Welfare Board, the fishers’ union has urged the government to give them compensation for the next six months as they have lost their livelihoods, and also for the fishing materials they lost. They have also demanded that the government remove the oil that spread to the estuary and the shorelines on urgent basis, and conduct inspections at the oil companies in North Madras and restrain them from spilling oil into water bodies. 

Gomathi Santhosh Kumar, councillor of Ward 2 in Ennore, said oil was deposited in all the boats that were tied to the banks of the canal. “These boats cannot be reused because the bottom would expand during the summer due to the oil. Each of those boats was worth around Rs 4 lakh,” she said, adding that the government should consider all of these factors while announcing the compensation. 

The councillor said the government should come forward to desilt the Buckingham Canal to ensure an undisturbed flow of water. She also called for the strengthening of the canal banks to ensure the floodwater does not enter fishing villages. “The government should get CPCL to pay compensation to the fishers,” she added.

The southern bench of the National Green Tribunal on December 8 took suo motu cognisance of the oil spill and ordered a high-level committee to submit a report on the incident. It ordered the committee to directly inspect the site on December 11, collect the samples of the oil in the affected area, and submit a detailed report on December 12.Subsequently, the bench directed oil companies and the state government to accelerate the cleaning process. 

Meanwhile, the state government’s State of Oil Spill - Crisis Management Group or SOS-CMG concluded after extensive field visits that the oil spillage had indeed happened from the premises of CPCL, entering into Buckingham Canal from guard ponds and stormwater drain ponds, before finally reaching Ennore Creek. “This had adversely impacted people living in the nearby fishing villages,” reported the committee after visiting the area. The SOS-CMG, chaired by chief secretary Shiv Das Meena, was formed on December 10. 

After its field visits, the SOS-CMG directed the CPCL to deploy mitigation efforts on war footing with necessary staff and machinery, under expert guidance. The CPCL was also asked to ramp up mitigation measures and complete the task as soon as possible.

A patch of mangroves damaged after oil spill at Chennai's Ennore.

The department of health has deployed a team of doctors to provide treatment to those affected with specialised services from dermatologists. The environment, climate change and forests department is also assessing the biodiversity loss in the area due to the oil spillage. 

“A special camp for the treatment of domestic and stray animals has been organised by the Animal Husbandry, Dairying, Fisheries and Fishermen Welfare Department. The Coast Guard was requested to provide technical assistance to ground-level teams in carrying out mitigation measures as per the norms. Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has also issued a notice to M/s. CPCL under section 33(A) of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) with directions to comply with the norms prescribed under the extant rules,” said the SOS-CMG’s press note.

Environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman said the government should look beyond the oil spill to revive the microhabitats and biodiversity of the canal, river, and Ennore Creek, which lost its natural ecosystem over the period due to the excessive ash dumping exercise from the Ennore Thermal Power Station. 

He also pointed out the government’s inaction towards the direction given by the NGT in 2022. “The NGT directed the state government to notify the full extent of the un-encroached portion of the Ennore wetlands under the Tamil Nadu Wetland Mission, to protect the ecosystem from being violated further. It also directed the ECC&F to submit the detailed project report in nine months. But we have not seen any progress since then,” he said.

Speaking about the unsafe and exposed practices of removing oil using mugs and industrial drums, he says that everyone takes the safety issue lightly and exposes themselves to hazardous inspection and removal methods. “The fishers should be used for their traditional knowledge, as they know more about this place than anyone else to restore the canal and river. But unfortunately, they have been used as cheap labourers to remove the oil using bare hands without basic protection gears,” he says, reiterating that exposure to this spillage even with protective gear will cause severe health issues. 

Environment engineer Prabhakara Veeraarasu, who is associated with environmental organisation Poovulagin Nanbargal, called the disaster an “injustice against the working-class fisher communities.” 

“This oil spill incident has a greater impact than the 2017 oil spill, which was followed by the collision of two ships at sea. The coastal guard survey has currently said that the oil is spread around 20 sq km, but it excluded the spread between Ennore to Kalanji and the 7 km stretch between Manali and the Buckingham canal,” he said.

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.

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