Nations unite over threat of oil slicks in East China Sea
Sinking of the Iranian tanker Sanchi with 136,000 tonnes of condensate aboard threatens both marine ecology and fishery resources
The history of marine oil spills shows that transparency and preparedness, including international coordination, are fundamental to combating the threat of environmental disaster.
The explosion and sinking in the East China Sea on Sunday of the Iranian tanker Sanchi, carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate, an ultralight and highly flammable crude oil, is a case in point. Chinese maritime authorities are coordinating surface and deep-sea operations that are bound to become part of the literature of marine environmental protection, with experts pointing to the huge amount of oil still in the tanker as a major concern.
To put it in perspective, the amount of fuel that went down with the Panama-registered vessel is double the cargo of the tanker Prestige when it sank off the coast of Spain in 2002 in one of Europe’s worst environmental disasters, and also the largest condensate spill.
After colliding with the Hong Kong-registered bulk freighter CF Crystal and catching fire on January 6, the Sanchi drifted southeast towards Japan.
China will use underwater robots organised by the Shanghai maritime search and rescue centre to examine the wreck for leaks, the Ministry for Transport says. The marine patrol ship Haixun 166 is already on site, so the crew may assess the risk of leaks and find ways to plug them, including the use of deep-sea divers.
Scientists have warned that a large oil slick and toxic fuel from the tanker would threaten marine ecology and fishery resources in a region where the density of aqua farming is probably the highest in the world.
Their worry is compounded by uncertainty about how the condensate will behave both on the surface and below if there are massive leaks. Contamination could affect Japan and South Korea as well as China, making the collision, fire, explosion and loss of the tanker with 32 lives potentially an international incident. Beijing has welcomed the participation of Japanese and South Korean vessels in the operation.
Now that the emergency has moved from marine salvage to monitoring and treatment of pollution, coordination and transparency between China, Japan and South Korea are paramount.