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Cyclone, oil spill and tarballs: a trio of troubles for Mahim village

Tarballs are little, dark-coloured round pieces, which are remnants of oil spills, leakage from the crude oil extraction and transport systems, oil, spent fuel, fuel dumped by the ships in deep seas.


-- Cyclone Tauktae, followed by an oil spill from a stranded barge and tarballs on the shore, has impacted the lives and livelihoods of the fishing community at Mahim village in Palghar district.

-- The lack of action by authorities can be attributed to the lack of an oil spill contingency plan that defines the responsibilities of various departments, writes the author of this commentary.

-- The cyclone, oil spill and a high quantity of tarballs on the shore have also impacted the region’s mangroves and marine biodiversity.

-- The views in this commentary are that of the author.

Purnima Meher, a 76-year-old resident, dodges big black lumps on the sand. She then stands by the mangroves on the shore of Mahim village in Maharashtra, looking at a stranded barge and says in agony, “For almost 10 years, these mangroves are growing here. I have never seen them in such a poor condition.”

Cyclone Tauktae, in mid-May this year, passed very close to the western coast of India. It had an impact on parts of the region, injuring and killing people, destroying property and crops and causing power disruptions in several districts of Maharashtra. One such place to feel the impact of the cyclone was Mahim village in Palghar district, north of Mumbai city. During the cyclone, the Gal Constructor, a cargo barge drifted to a part of the coast of Mahim, the rocky Wadarai coast, and was stranded there. This caused damage to the barge which led to an oil spill and further, large quantities of tarballs were deposited along the shore of the village.

The impact of the cyclone clubbed with the oil spill and tarballs, has adversely affected the lives and livelihoods of Mahim’s village’s coastal community.

Meher, lovingly called “tai” by the youngsters in the village, is a resident of Mahim village. She is an active member of the National Fishworkers Forum and Maharashtra Machchimar Kruti Samiti. Walking along the beach, tai said “I have seen tarballs wash on the coast every year but had never seen them in such large quantities and of the size of footballs covering almost 5 to 6 meters of the beach in length. Both the oil spill from the barge and the tarballs have destroyed our coast and a thriving ecosystem. Many families are left disturbed as they lost their livelihood and source of nutrition.”

The stuck barge 

The four-storied Gal Constructor barge, carrying 137 crew members, drifted from Alibag to Wadarai coast’s intertidal area on May 18, 2021. The barge served as a construction barge for the off-shore ONGC oil rigs. All 137 crew members and personnel on the Gal Constructor barge were rescued. It was a ‘dumb barge’, having no engine and propeller to run it and was navigated using tug boats. The tug boat used to navigate the barge also broke and drowned during the cyclone. There are separate cases ongoing in the courts trying to fix the responsibilities of all these accidents that took place during the cyclone, despite several warnings from the Indian Meteorological Department.

More than 80 days later, the barge continued to stand along the coast of the village. “That barge is completely damaged from the bottom now, all its floors get submerged in water during high tide and only some part of it remains above water,” said Moreshwar Meher, a fisherman of Wadarai-Mahim. Stranded, unattended, exposed to the tidal waves, rocks, rains, rough seas the barge’s future looks uncertain. The villagers now worry whether the barge will cause any further unwanted loss of life and livelihoods.

The barge is stuck close to the navigation route of the fishing boats. Now that the fishing season has started, the boats will venture into the sea from the Wadarai Jetty. This further pushes the fisherfolk to the risk of accidents since the barge is unattended and exposed to rough seas and weather. “We have written to various authorities requesting the removal of the barge, we hope that the authorities take necessary action at the earliest and remove the barge from this coast soon,” said Manendra Arekar, Chairman of the Wadarai Sarvoday Sahakari Machcimar Society.

Tar deposits

Tarballs are not a new phenomenon. They occur every year during the monsoon along the western coast of Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. The tarballs deposited on the Palghar coast this time have been in large quantities.

Tarballs are little, dark-coloured round pieces, which are remnants of oil spills, leakage from the crude oil extraction and transport systems, oil, spent fuel, fuel dumped by the ships in deep seas.

Since June 2021 following the cyclone, there have been large deposits of tarballs seen on the Palghar coast. Around July 27, new deposits of tarballs were also seen along the coast in large quantities. The tarballs have covered the entire beach of the village. No one can walk across the beach without stamping on the tarballs and carrying them along on footwear.

As the tarballs are exposed to the sun and rain, they melt their way to the sea and mix with the water again. In the areas where there are mangroves, the melted tarball oil settles on the mangroves during high tides. From the time the tarballs settle on the beach to the time they melt and mix with the sea again, they pose a great threat to the marine ecosystem. Monsoon is a critical egg-laying and reproduction season. The mangroves flower and drop seeds. The oysters, bivalves, intertidal marine biodiversity, fishes all lay eggs and it is a critical reproduction season. Mahim, being a combination of both, sandy beach and rocky outcrops with on-shore mangroves, make for a unique ecosystem.

Three months on, the barge stood still on the coast of Mahim. The impact of the oil spill on the biodiversity and the villagers is still being denied by the officials. The containment booms used for the containment of oil spills also washed on the shore and were picked up only on July 4, 2021 when the officials visited the beach for clean-up. Later after a few days, more containment booms were washed on the shore and in the mangroves.

The barge was operated by AFCONS but is owned by Tirupati Vessels. Tirupati vessels Pvt. Ltd. is a company based in Kolkata. The Mercantile Marine Department had summoned the owner of the barge for further inquiry into the accident as per the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958. However, the owner did not appear before the department despite serving three summons to him. Therefore, the Department has filed a case before the District Magistrate Court, Mumbai under section 174  of the Indian Penal Code. The matter was heard on August 5 and has now been listed for further hearing on August 25. Even for the hearing on the 5th, neither the owner nor his representative was present in the court. As the government officials have been trying to fix the responsibility for the accident and the removal of the barge, the barge stands on the coast unattended and exposed.

Several complaints were filed with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, Mangrove Cell, and the Collector Office, Palghar, by Meher and some of the local tribal women. The village residents also drew attention to the issue by organising a beach clean-up drive on July 4, 2021 and consecutively on the following Sundays. Over 24 government officials marked their presence at the first clean-up drive. But the tarballs are still on the coast, melting their way back to the sea. On July 12, large quantities of tarballs again washed on the shore. Making way from these dambargolas, as they are locally called, the intertidal fishers still go to the sea, hoping to find a good catch for their family and make some earnings. The small mangroves on the coast have died and new saplings were found buried below the tarballs.

Policy gaps

Since the barge accident took place and the tarballs were deposited on the coast, little has been done by the government. The oil spill control measures used to control the oil spill that occurred from Gal Constructor were not efficient during the low tide where the entire barge’s bottom was exposed and the water dries up. The booms used were all settled on the rocks and the oil spread all around the area.

The tarballs have not been cleaned from the coast as none of the officials take the responsibility to do so. There is no effort made to trace the source of tarballs and stop them at the source. The tarballs that wash on the shore provide a great opportunity to be cleaned, be removed from the ecosystem, and break the chain. However, since there is no clear policy framework defining the roles and responsibilities to do the clean-up.

The lack of action can be attributed to the lack of an important policy of oil spill contingency plan. This plan plays an important role in defining the responsibilities of various departments during oil spills on the shore or in the intertidal areas. While Maharashtra had intended to make such a plan in 2011, and even included the threat of oil spill in its Disaster Management Plan, there currently exists no oil spill contingency plan state various government agencies.

Dakshin Kannada district of Karnataka and Goa’s oil spill contingency plan clearly define actions to be taken in case of an oil spill or on the occurrence of tarballs. However, no such contingency and management plans were found online for the Palghar district or the state of Maharashtra. “The denial of such disasters, lack of scientific study, policy and delay in recognising the loss of such marine biodiversity, the source of villagers’ nutrition and livelihoods is injustice,” said Purnima Meher watching the Maag (a form of manual fishing) fishers walk from Wadarai to Kelve trying to catch some fish during the high tide.

This story was first published on Mongabay, click here to access it.