Administration clueless as tar balls wash up along India’s western coast; experts claim it's a deep, recurring problem

Jitu Bhai Tandel, chairman of a fishermen society in Gujarat's Umargaon says that the fishing nets in the area are drawing up tar balls instead of fish. "This happens every year, but it’s excessive this year. It’s hard to even walk on the beach)," he says. A common phenomenon facing India's western coast during the monsoon, the tar balls have become so normalised that it has become commonplace to warn people against going to the beach during the monsoon. “Don’t go to the beach today, there’s oil washing up (to the shore),” says Shaunak Modi, a member of the collective Marine Life of Mumbai. Tar balls washed up in Gujarat coast. Image courtesy: MSH Sheikh This year though, the washed up tar balls are not only more excessive than previous years, they are also bigger in size, with beaches from Southern Gujarat, Daman and now even Mumbai’s coastline being covered with these waxy formations lending the air a distinctly oily smell. Tar balls are remnants of crude oil, that after mixing with water “form an emulsion that often looks like chocolate pudding. This emulsion is much thicker and stickier than the original oil. Winds and waves continue to stretch and tear the oil patches into smaller pieces, or tarballs. While some tarballs may be as large as pancakes, most are coin-sized,” according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lack of administrative response The Central Pollution Control Board has denied any oil spill (one of the main causes of formation of tar balls) this year, in a letter to MSH Sheikh, an activist and president of Surat-based Brackish Water Research Institute who first alerted the media to the occurrence, and also filed an official complaint against the extent of tar ball pollution on Gujarat’s coast (below is a copy of that letter).Despite the official denial of an oil spill, there has been no explanation forthcoming on why, this year, the tar ball pollution is more excessive than previous years. On Mumbai’s Juhu beach, there is a strong smell of oil, and besides tar balls, the garbage that is washing ashore is also covered in a slick of oil. The area in front of Juhu’s Novotel is covered with oily garbage and tar balls. Shaunak says that a woman who was asked to clean the unsightly mass of solidified crude oil had no protective gear, and on 15 August, when Marine Life of Mumbai visited the beach, there were clusters of tar balls kept along the boundary wall of the hotel, presumably to be picked up by BMC workers. Sheikh remains adamant on the lack of administrative response to this annual occurrence. Over a phone call, he speaks of how tar balls from previous years haven’t been cleaned up yet and have just been buried under the sand. When Firstpost contacted the Indian Coast Guard (North West), the public relations officer said that while they have read reports on the matter, the concerned officer would get in touch with us if he got approval to give out any reports to the media. From the Indian Coast Guard (West), Commandant Avinandan Mitra said that this is an annual phenomenon occuring during the monsoon. Attempts to contact the Gujarat Pollution Control Board yielded no result. Tar balls washed up in Juhu beach. Shubhra Dixit The hazards of tar ball While according to a paper by the NOAA tar balls are not known to be hazardous to humans, they can affect those who are more sensitive to chemicals. Another study, however, claims they can be fatal to humans due to the presence of Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacterium that thrives in warm seawater. Exposure to it through a wound can lead to potentially fatal infections. Dr Baban Ingole, a retired researcher from the National Institute of Oceanography says that tar balls also hamper biodiversity. The plankton, fish larvae and eggs die immediately on coming in contact, and the organisms that can tolerate them will accumulate the harmful substances in their bodies, and ultimately die from them. The impact on humans, likewise, comes from consuming fish and filter feeders that consume tar balls. Some studies say that tar balls also foul up the nesting habitats for turtles, and can have fatal consequences for those turtles that eat them. Main causes of tar ball formation A 2013 study published by the National Institute of Oceanography states: “The rate of deposition varies from year to year; only in some years, it is very significant. The deposition of tar balls on the beach is proportional to the quantity of oil spilled in the Sea.” Extending that logic, there appears to have been a bigger than usual oil spill somewhere in the Arabian Sea. Though tar balls can be naturally occurring, seeping from the sea floor, often near some petroleum reservoirs, the natural occurrence of such a vast quantity is unlikely says Dr Ingole. He says there are four potential causes of tar balls: I. Oil tankers washing their tanks of sludge in the sea, that eventually gets washed ashore. II. Pipeline leakage from offshore oil rigs III. Oil tanker accidents, and IV. Ship accidents The NIO paper adds that “oil-well blowouts, accidental and deliberate release of bilge and ballast water from ships, river runoff, discharges through municipal sewage and industrial effluents" also lead to the formation of tar alls. Tar ball formation recurrent since 1970s Tar balls have been observed washing up on the western coast, especially Goa, since the 1970s. In 1975 and 1976, the total deposition of tar balls on Goa’s beaches was 1,000 and 750 tonnes respectively, according to the study. This year too, the first reports of tar balls washing ashore, came from Goa in May. The reports of tar balls in Gujarat started coming in from the first week of August. According to Sheikh, they first started appearing around 4-5 August in Umargam, Nargol and Tithal. It was later reported  that they were spotted even in Daman and Dahanu, stretching across 150 kilometres of the coastline. A few days later they appeared on Mumbai’s Juhu beach. Images of tar balls show that though some quantity of tar balls have been washing up on Mumbai’s shores since July, it got worse around 14 August. Tar balls washed up in Juhu beach on 19 and 20 July and 16 August. Image courtesy: Shaunak Modi A 2008 paper co-written by Dr Ingole on the vulnerability of the Indian coast to oil spills says that while "accidental spills have shown a decline globally, in contrast to increase in maritime transport. However, a reverse trend was observed along the Indian coast for the Arabian Sea". Of the big spills near Mumbai, the fire at Bombay High in 2005 was probably the biggest, when an ONGC vessel — MSV Samudra Suraksha collided with the offshore oil platform. Then in 2010, two merchant ships collided off the Mumbai coast again, spilling over 800 tons of oil into the sea, and then in 2013 an ONGC pipeline sprouted a leak that took nearly 12 hours to cap, and in the process over 1,000 litres of oil washed into the sea, also leading to the death of sea life including dolphins and turtles. India’s western coast houses Bombay High, the Panna Mukta Tapti oil fields, and Essar Oil. The Arabian Sea is also a crowded oil transportation waterway, and oil spills of some sort are routine. Is high maritime traffic the problem? According to the National oil spill disaster contingency plan of 2015, “About 70 percent of the world oil demand is ferried along the Indian coastline. The major ports in India handle over 7,000 POL tankers (petroleum, oil and lubricants) each year. Over eighty companies are in operation in 228 offshore blocks and fields, and the whole of the sedimentary basin area is likely to be covered by exploration activities by 2015." Tar balls washed up in Gujarat coast. Image courtesy: MSH Sheikh Then there is also the fact that the Arabian Sea borders the Gulf countries. According to the NIO paper: “The model results reveal that the probable locations for the formation of these tar balls could be the corridor around the international oil tanker routes, and they get transported to the coast by the influence of prevailing winds, currents and tides. During the pre and summer monsoon seasons, the circulation pattern in Arabian Sea is such that it is conducive for the transport of tar balls towards the West Coast of India." While the provenance of this coastal pollution is not clear, what is alarming is the fact that very little effort is made to clean it. According to Sheikh there has been no clean up of tar balls in Gujarat so far, nor in Juhu, where the residents have begun to complain, there are, of course, stretches of the coast where no one is raising alarm over this. Tandel moans the loss of business for fishermen, and also a drop in number of tourists. “Saturday-Sunday sees a large number of tourists but since this began they have stopped coming. The tar balls stick to clothes and feet and smell bad. Now only those who don’t know about this are coming,” he says.