Bad news for environment

Saturday, 25 August 2012 01:44 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

SRI Lanka is blessed with a rich biodiversity and environment, which is possibly why it is taken for granted. The sinking of a ship off the Panadura coastline carrying as much as 75,000 tons of oil is a prime example of how uncaring bureaucracy could well result in one of the worst environmental disasters since the tsunami.

The ship, which was anchored off Sri Lanka’s shore since 2009, was virtually abandoned over a legal dispute. A few members of the crew on video footage have explained that they had repeatedly appealed to the Navy, the lawyers representing the Greek shipping company that owns the vessel, and other authorities, to intervene and clear the ship of its dangerous cargo.

Even though most of the 350 ton cargo was cleared after repeated news reports, a significant amount still remains and inaction has brought the coastline to the very brink of destruction. As everyone knows, oil spills often result in both immediate and long-term environmental damage. Some of the environmental damage caused by an oil spill can last for decades after the spill occurs.

When an oil slick from a large oil spill reaches the beach, the oil coats and clings to every rock and grain of sand. If the oil washes into coastal marshes, mangrove forests or other wetlands, fibrous plants and grasses absorb the oil, which can damage the plants and make the whole area unsuitable as a wildlife habitat.

When some of the oil eventually stops floating on the surface of the water and begins to sink into the marine environment, it can have the same kind of damaging effects on fragile underwater ecosystems, killing or contaminating many fish and smaller organisms that are essential links in the global food chain. For example, residual oil from the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 left as much as 26,000 tons of oil in the Alaskan shoreline even two decades after.

Oil spills kill birds and marine animals of all types including fish and eventually humans who consume them. Oil-covered birds are practically a universal symbol of the environmental damage wreaked by oil spills. Any oil spill in the ocean is a death sentence for sea birds. Some species of shore birds may escape by relocating if they sense the danger in time, but sea birds that swim and dive for their food are sure to be covered in oil.

Oil spills also damage nesting grounds, which can have serious long-term effects on entire species. The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, occurred during prime mating and nesting season for many bird and marine species, and the long-term environmental consequences of that spill won’t be known for many years.

Ultimately, the severity of environmental damages caused by a particular oil spill depends on many factors, including the amount of the oil spilled, the type and weight of the oil, the location of the spill, and the species of wildlife in the area. But one thing never varies: oil spills are always bad news for the environment.

There is no denying that more action and less red tape could have saved the precious coastline. Despite officials assuring that plans are in place to minimise the damage, it cannot be denied that there will be an environmental cost. The tragedy is heightened by the fact that it could have been averted.