Ecocentric

Oil Sludge Blights Beaches of Party Mecca Goa

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Workers clear tar balls from Colva beach in Goa, India, on August 31 / Photo: AP

Black tar balls and oil sludge have surfaced this week on the famed beaches of Goa, the small Indian state so beloved by the day-glowed ravers of yesteryear.  According to the AP, pudding-like oil deposits some six inches deep have soiled popular beaches like Colva, Candolim and Calangute, the likes of which draw millions of tourists every year. Authorities have not yet determined where the oil came from, but the culprit is widely believed to be a ship illegally dumping waste oil offshore.

Unfortunately, this does not come as a shock to folks in Goa.

According to India’s National Institute of Oceanography, people started noticing the tar balls in the 1970s, and they’ve been and on-and-off again fixture of the picturesque coastline ever since as ships routinely make illegal dumps of their oil-infused waste water into the ocean. Goa is a big shipping port, and it’s become an even bigger one since the Beijing Olympics, when demand for the iron ore that gets mined in the region shot up.

According to Claude Alvares, the director of the Goa Foundation, an environmental monitoring group, Goa’s iron ore exports have gone up from 15 to 50 million tons in the last few years. And while ship traffic has tripled right along with it, monitoring and regulation of the ships coming in and out of the port has not. “For a place like Goa, which has 75 kilometers [47 miles] of beaches, one would think [local authorities] would be geared up to deal with policing the system, or dealing with the problem when it occurs,” Alvares says. “They don’t have the capacity for either.”

This round of tar balls and oil, however, is particularly bad, and it’s prompted a larger response than usual. Volunteers are out working to clean up the worst affected beaches, and officials have promised to try to track down the offending ship. Alvares doubts much will come of it, citing the example of a huge ship that has been grounded at the beach near the Taj — Goa’s toniest hotel — for the last decade. Ongoing arguments about who is responsible for hauling the ship out have left it decaying there for ten years, disrupting currents and sand flow in the area and affecting the business of the hotels. “We have a known enemy right on our beach,” says Alvares. “What are you going to do against people who discharge their waste in the night and are out of the economic zone before your customs officials can wake up?”

The Goa incident follows close on the heels of a collision due north, when two ships ran into each other few miles outside Mumbai’s harbor on August 7. About 800 tons of oil are estimated to have spilled into the sea, coating the region’s shores in oil and shutting down the port for several days. Fishing was also shut down in the area as various groups got to work on cleaning up the spill with elbow grease, chemical emulsifiers and  a cocktail of bacteria produced by India’s Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) called Oilzapper. Similar in theory to bacterial technology being used in the Gulf, the makers of Oilzapper claim it has already cleaned up 26,000 tons of oil sludge in India since its invention. In Mumbai, the patented microbes are now being used in select spots where the spill took place, and have been found, after a week’s testing, to reduce the oil by 3-5.5%.

Could Goa’s tar balls also be Zapped? TERI says that it has expressed interest in lending a hand. “It all depends on the authories there to give us the go ahead,” says Rajiv Chhibber, manager of TERI’s corporate communications. But Alvares, again, is skeptical of local commitment to the problem. “There’s been a lot of noise,” he says, but “nothing happens. In Goa, most citizens complain there is absolutely no governance whatsoever.”

When I was a kid in southern California, there was also a little tar on the beach sometimes — small black nuggets that, once stepped on, ground down into your the soles of your feet and were a real pain to scrub off. But that was (most likely) natural tar seeping out of rock in the ocean floor, not hazardous discharge that boats sneakily dumped because of lax regulations. No major health concerns have been linked to the recurrences yet, but the National Institute of Oceanography does post this warning on its tar ball page (!):

For most people, an occasional brief contact with a small amount of oil, while not recommended, will do no harm. However, some people are especially sensitive to chemicals, including the hydrocarbons found in crude oil and petroleum products. They may have an allergic reaction or develop rashes even from brief contact with oil. In general, contact with oil should be avoided.  If contact occurs, the area should be washed with soap and water, baby oil, or some cleaning compound recommended by a doctor as safe for skin.

It’s depressing that the Institute, based in Goa, even has a tar ball page, and more depressing that these ships violate environmental law, undetected, year in and year out. Kudos to Goa for marketing itself as an international tourist destination and bringing that money into the local economy, but perhaps it’s time for officials to switch gears and pay less attention to be-dreaded gap-year students that flock to the beach in winter, and more time to the people who live on them the rest of the year. Ignoring the social and environmental costs of oil is, like trance, thankfully falling out of style.