One foggy morning in December 2014, a cargo ship rammed into a stationary Southern Star-7 in the Sela River of the Sundarbans. The tired vessel, which was neither double bottomed nor double hulled as every oil tanker is mandated to be by the International Marine Organization, crumpled under the impact and emptied its belly of its cargo. 358,000 noxious liters of Heavy Fuel Oil (also called furnace oil) rushed into the Sela River. The delicate ecosystem of the largest unbroken stand of mangroves in the world was now smothered in an unsightly, three-meter-high, black viscous goo.
The state oil company that owned the oil immediately swung into action and announced a “buy-back” scheme to recover what it could of the oil. It exhorted the fisherfolk from villages hemmed in by the oil spill, to go out and collect as much oil as they could. Their efforts would fetch them 25 Takas (about 30 cents) for every liter collected.
Neither Padma Oil nor the government announced one other crucial piece of information to the fisherfolk …
Don't Touch! Don't Ingest! Don't Inhale!
Heavy Fuel Oil (furnace oil, residual oil) is a toxic, potentially carcinogenic mixture of compounds that should not be handled without proper protective gear, or ingested or inhaled.
Burning it releases Hydrogen Sulphide fumes that can lead to medical complications and, in extreme cases, death. Some compounds in the oil are known carcinogens; some others are known to be harmful to a foetus. Ingesting or inhaling these compounds can be demonstrably fatal.
The unsuspecting fisherfolk, who knew no better, did all three.
Whatever they recovered was dumped in fishermen’s dinghies, which were towed back to the village by the Forest Department’s motorized boats. There, right next to houses with pregnant women, kids, and the elderly, the toxic black goo was heated. Clouds of acrid smoke rose every hundred meters. Thousands of people in the village inhaled the hydrogen sulphide fumes for two weeks straight.
The smoke, which hung thick and low in the cool winter nights, stung the lungs, irritated eyes, and turned stomachs.
The incidence of respiratory problems and insomnia began to soar. Volunteer doctors did their best to treat the villagers, even as officials from Padma Oil, phones stuck to their ears, monitored the process of recovery and kept track of the orange barrels being loaded into their trucks.
No one from the government came to help.
Some villages drew their drinking and cooking water from the river. The oil sloshing thick in the the rivers tainted their water source but they drank it anyway, because water supplied by tankers was expensive.
Fishing nets blackened within minutes of being thrown into the river. A blackness that would remain for months, rendering their nets useless and driving them deeper into debt.
Fish and shrimp catches had fallen and crabs had disappeared. The few that were caught were coated with the oil, but they ate them anyway, for what else was there to eat?
A week into the recovery of oil, severe cases of diarrhea began to surface.
The NOAA's Guidelines On Cleaning Mangrove Oil-Spills
While a few villagers continued to scoop oil-soaked hyacinth out of the river, many hundreds of others were encouraged to walk the mudflats and scrape oil off the vegetation. They stripped the plants and trees of all the goo they could collect, their desperate efforts a direct result of the disappearance of fish under the spill and consequent loss of their livelihood. The more they could scrape, the more they would earn.
In the bargain, their trampling feet pushed the thick fuel oil ever deeper into the earth of the mangrove swamp. This oil, now buried under mud, is a danger that could severely affect the ecosystem in the long run.
The UN Applauds This Debacle
The UN, in its preliminary report called the unscientific and harmful undertaking a “comendable (sic) effort by local communities …,” when, in fact, it was dangerously close to a public health disaster.
The ‘clean-up’ benefitted only one entity – Padma Oil. It bought back 68,200 liters of the spill, paying the fisherfolk way below market price for their efforts.
Many households ended up spending all that they earned in the “buy-back” on medicines and doctor’s fees. Others woke late to the realization that they have actually suffered huge losses in blackened nets, soiled boats, sullied vessels, and clothes.
With the Sela River open to hazardous commercial traffic again, the future of both the fisherfolk and the Sundarbans remains threatened.