Massive Oil Spill in East China Sea Is the Size of Paris

In one of the worst oil shipping disasters in decades, a tanker carrying $60 million of Iranian oil collided with a Chinese cargo ship. We speak with marine biologist David Santillo about the possible effects on marine ecosystems

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In one of the worst oil shipping disasters in decades, a tanker carrying almost a million barrels of Iranian oil worth $60 million collided with a Chinese cargo ship on Jan. 6. After burning for more than a week now, it sank, spewing more oil into the surrounding ocean. Most of the 32 crew members of the Panamanian vessel called Sanchi are missing. The Sanchi’s crew consisted of 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis. The spill is expanding and is said to be over 40 square miles in diameter, or the size of Paris. Is this disaster just a blip in the ocean or, as some scientists are warning, could this have a huge impact on millions of fish being contaminated by carcinogens? With us to discuss, I’m being joined by Dr. David Santillo, marine biologist and senior scientist with Greenpeace Research Laboratory based in the University of Exeter in the UK. Thanks for joining us, David.

DAVE SANTILLO: You’re welcome.

SHARMINI PERIES: David, discuss the potential effects of the oil spill in the East China Sea and what we know about this disaster so far.

DAVE SANTILLO: Well, this is certainly a very large disaster. The initial accident led to an incredible fire on board the ship that burnt a lot of the relatively light condensate product that was on board. We don’t know how much burned or how much is being spilled into the surrounding seawater. But it’s certainly a large disaster, and one of course which has also led to the loss — and presumably, at this point, the death — of all of the crew members on board the Sanchi. Very much a human disaster. I think what we’re now seeing playing out is the environmental impact from that. Every oil spill, every accident at sea is different. It depends on what the ships are carrying. It depends on what happens to them after this kind of accident. But, clearly oil has accumulated at the surface and we also have the potential for more leakages of oil from the fuel tanks of the vessel now that it’s sitting on the seabed unless that oil can be recovered.

The precise effect of the spill over the sea in that area will be something that can only be determined over time. There’s very little unfortunately that can be done to contain the spill of that size and given that it’s, in some cases, a surface sheen, in other cases, thicker accumulations of oil. But, it’s not the same as a crude oil spill, for example, where you could have some chance of containing and recovering a lot of that oil. It’s going to be very difficult to do anything other than unfortunately monitor the impact over time.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, whenever there’s this kind of disaster, it has a long-term effect in the sense that the full impact of it is slow moving and of course this is going to affect the food supply, not only in the immediate area, but it could spread to other parts of the world as well. What do we know about the potential impact this will have based on other similar kinds of spills we’ve had, either the Valdez or the BP oil spill?

DAVE SANTILLO: I think, as I say, every spill is different so it’s very difficult to draw comparisons with another particular spill, especially given that these things occur in different areas. But what is clear is that the oil on board will have impacts on marine life. Some of the components of that oil will be particularly toxic and they would have dissolved relatively quickly into the water and that can be more harmful to some species than the physical presence of the oil itself. This is an area which is rich in marine life. It’s an area that is incredibly important for commercial fisheries, for fish and for squid, and it’s also important as a corridor for wild life, including whales and tortoises. I think that really the full extent of the impact is something that we’ll have to wait and see.

We know that the Chinese authorities have been sampling and will be monitoring the impacts. Some of those impacts will unfortunately remain hidden. We may never know the full extent of it because it’s so difficult to carry out that kind of research. But certainly there will have been impacts and those, in some cases, may go on for some time to come, especially for some of those longer lived organisms that could well have been harmed or killed as a result of this.

SHARMINI PERIES: David, I understand your hesitancy to draw parallels or comparisons as you emphasized here. Each situation is different but we know that dispersants, for example with the BP spill in the Gulf, didn’t work very well. Scientists have defined some of these areas as dead zones, in the sense that they’re really not producing a healthy … Left behind a healthy ecosystem and it has interfered with the food supply and so on. I’m not suggesting that you predict anything here. But what have we learned from these experiences that we need to be concerned about in this context?

DAVE SANTILLO: Well, I think what we have learned from all the previous spills wherever they have occurred is that once they’ve happened, it becomes a very difficult situation to try to contain and control. It’s impossible to avoid all of the damages. To some extent, once an oil spill has happened, we’re dealing with the consequences of it. There’s a lot to be said for prevention rather than trying to find a cure.

We know in the past that some of the interventions, especially widespread use of dispersants can have as wide-ranging impacts sometimes as the oil spills themselves. In this case, the oil is a relatively light oil. It’s probably not something that would respond particularly well to dispersants anyway and it’s not something that can be easily boomed and contained which is why I think it’s important to see all of these things as individual cases, not to in any way play down the potential significance and the long-term impacts that can come from a condensate spill and from potential future spill of the fuel oil, but just so that we’re clear that we have to monitor the individual effects. And, in the end, the best way of dealing with these problems is to make sure that we have fewer of these spills, that we look again at whether reliance on global transport of fossil fuels and such dangerous cargoes as condensates is something that we can really sustain into the future.

SHARMINI PERIES: Not totally environmentally, but even in terms of the cost of managing these kinds of disasters. The Deepwater Horizon spill, for example, just recently, they estimated that this is going to cost $65 billion, the full impact of the crisis that it created. When you’re talking about preventative measures here, David, describe what that might look like.

DAVE SANTILLO: Well, I think it depends on the time scale that you’re looking at. Clearly once an accident happens at sea, the problems begin and, as I’ve said, are difficult to contain. In the most immediate terms, we need to learn why this accident happened, what, if anything, could have been done that would have prevented it, so that we can make sure that we’re not in this situation again some months down the line.

Condensates is an explosive material. It’s far more dangerous to the crew in the event of an accident and a fire like this than some other forms of oil. Yet, we’re seeing more and more of it transported around. It’s a different risk, if you like, from conventional crude oil but nonetheless something that is extremely dangerous to transport around. That’s why I think in the longer term we need to look not just at the safety of shipping and what more can be done to avoid this kind of collision but also the wisdom of a system where we’re becoming more reliant on transporting fossil fuels at sea rather than looking at ways in which we can become less reliant on fossil fuels where this kind of cargo would be less frequently carried and could be replaced by other forms of energy.

SHARMINI PERIES: How serious is this problem? Put it in context in terms of the fossil fuel industry, this kind of transportation, the kinds of spills that are going on all over the world really and the effects it’s going to have on the ecosystem. How broad and wide is this problem that we need to try to contain?

DAVE SANTILLO: It’s a huge and diverse problem. From the point of view of oil spills and accidents at sea, they’ve happened for as long as humans have been transporting this kind of cargo and sadly they’ll continue to happen. Thankfully, the loss of human life at sea has often been less of an issue than it was in this case. There’s an inevitably that there are going to be accidents and there are going to be spills for as long as we carry on with transporting fossil fuels. The other aspect of course is the reason that these fossil fuels are being transported is to a large extent to use them for energy production and that leads to another problem, that of climate change and also the acidification of our oceans that comes from the carbon dioxide that’s released at the same time. Our reliance on fossil fuels is a problem for a number of different reasons all of which can impact on the oceans and the life in the oceans and resources on which people rely.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, David. Thank you so much for joining us today and we’ll be keeping an eye on this disaster and looking forward to having you back.

DAVE SANTILLO: You’re very welcome.

SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.