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Vol. XXXIII No. 17, December 16-31, 2023
For the residents of Ennore, Cyclone Michaung has been disastrous in more ways than one. The floodwaters have carried an oil spill from the nearby CPCL refinery at Manali into the eco-sensitive Ennore Creek, affecting the community in Ennore and surrounding areas as far as 25 kilometres from the neighbourhood. The Tamil Nadu Water Resources Department and Indian Coast Guard have noted that the oil spill has extended to roughly 20 kilometres, coating the Buckingham Canal and encroaching into the Kosasthalaiyar River to reach up to Kasimedu Harbour. The disaster, following as it does in the wake of the cyclone, has resulted in extensive property damage – the oil has stained homes and vehicles, and damaged belongings such as electronic appliances and documents. The fishing community is discovering that they’re unable to return to work even after the rains have stopped; oil contamination has affected their catch and the Kosasthalaiyar is heaving with hundreds of dead fish, prawns and crabs. The impact could well be devastating – Prabhakaran Veerarasu, an environmental engineer at Poovulagin Nanbargal, pointed out in a quote to Deccan Herald that Ennore Creek is home to about 100 species of fish. If the breeding ground is affected, he warns, the livelihoods of the fishing community will be destroyed.
Meanwhile, media reports are emerging about the ensuing health issues affecting the people of Ernavur, Adi Dravidar Colony, Thiruveethuamman and other fishing villages. Many complain of burning sensations in their eyes, itching in their hands and legs and spells of giddiness. The health department has deployed a team of doctors to provide medical care, and the State Government has sent twenty boats with men and resources to the Ennore Creek area to help with relief works.
The State Oil Spill Crisis Management Group came together on December 11 to review the extent of the crisis. The group – headed by the member secretary of TNPCB and consisting of experts from Anna University, NEERI, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Coast Guard – conducted field visits and concluded that the spillage had indeed originated from the premises of CPCL. They also noted that the refinery was not equipped with adequate stormwater management. CPCL’s response – as reported by The Indian Express – seems rather tepid. “Due to the incessant rains caused by Cyclone Michaung, there was unprecedented flooding inside the CPCL refinery in Manali. Presently water levels have receded. There was no pipeline leak from the refinery. We are investigating the matter,” they said. The response from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has been disappointing, too. Activists and residents of Ennore claim that the Board attempted to downplay the crisis in the beginning, maintaining that the water only contained traces of oil. However, following directives from the Government, the Board issued directions to CPCL to identify and clean oil stagnations in Buckingham Canal, Ennore Creek and adjoining areas; it was also tasked with ensuring that all pipelines and tanks are safe from leakage. The TNPCB order also noted that CPCL’s operations would be suspended if the refinery was found to have discharged oil against the norms under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.
The fact is that such incidents are not new to the Ennore-North Manali region in North Chennai. This isn’t the first time that the community has faced issues with pollution from the CPCL refinery, either – in August last year, a suspected sulphur dioxide leak caused many residents to complain of breathlessness and eye irritation. The year before saw the Ennore Creek flailing under severe fly ash contamination. That makes the current oil spill at least the third CPCL crisis in as many years. Questions have been raised in the past, too, of why a seemingly toothless TNPCB limits itself to inspection and damage control. Considering that CPCL in particular regularly finds itself in such dubious limelight, the Board ought to have mandated the firm to follow legal norms and set up the necessary checks and balances to ensure that it is done. In fact, it was just last year that the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court urged the Board to show no leniency to polluters private or civic. It remains a mystery as to why steps were not taken. It certainly could have helped avert the current oil spill.
At the end of the day, businesses have a responsibility to the community and governing bodies like the TNPCB cannot remain passive, inert organisations. The question arises, then, whether it is truly empowered to carry out its role; and if not, which administrative body is, and why such offences persist within the system. The city needs an environmental body that is committed and North Chennai certainly deserves better from its government.