The oil leak from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) pipeline in ecologically-rich Muthurajawela has damaged the trees, mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects and mangroves and the after-effects may last for three to four years, experts warned. With the authorities calling off operations to mop up the oil by Wednesday, the leaked oil will remain in [...]


Oil pipe blunder leads to devastation

Death in the marshes for choked and burning wildlife

The oil leak from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) pipeline in ecologically-rich Muthurajawela has damaged the trees, mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects and mangroves and the after-effects may last for three to four years, experts warned.

With the authorities calling off operations to mop up the oil by Wednesday, the leaked oil will remain in the nearby lagoon, in the mangroves, the lagoo

Mopping up operation.

n bank and the nearby waterways.

The leak, discovered on December 31 had sprung in one of the pipelines used to carry oil from ships to the storage facility at Kerawalapitiya.

Due to repair work on one pipeline the second pipeline, which had not been used for two years and had, it emerged later, become corroded with seawater, had been put into service to carry kerosene oil.

The General Manager of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), Dr, Terney Pradeep Kumara, said that more than 10,000 litres of oil had been cleaned up with help of coastguards but the rest of oil left inside the mangrove forests could not be cleaned to minimise further damage.

Mr. Kumara said oil had pooled around mangrove roots and explained that clean-up workers had to avoid those areas because stepping on the muddy banks would compress the oil further into the soil where it would remain for a couple of years.

MEPA will sue the CPC as well as claiming Rs. 1 million in expenses to clean up the area. The damages are being estimated.

Mr. Kumara claimed the CPC knowingly destroyed a wetland by letting a new pipeline corrode by filling it with seawater. He said the CPC was concerned only about stopping the leak and not about the removal of oil from the environment.

A MEPA official who was at the contaminated site, Asanka Wijewarnasuriya, said he saw dead fish, water snakes, monitor lizards, small reptiles and shrimp scattered there.

“I sometimes found around 20 dead reptiles in various places,” he said.

Professor M.M. Padmalal, a microbiologist and eco-toxicologist at the University of Jayawardenapura, said when oil is released into wetlands the entire ecology of the area was affected.

When hydrocarbons such as kerosene are dumped, micro-life such as bacteria and fungi die, so that it would take three to four years for the oil to naturally disintegrate.

“By that time birds, fish and reptiles would have consumed contaminated food and would become prone to chronic diseases and genetic disorders,” he said.

Prof. Padmalal said the leak could have been controlled if the CPC had drawn up a contingency plan – the CPC could have used improvised booms from banana trunks or bundles of hay to restrain the spread of oil.

Prof. Padmalal said the death of even small life-forms would leave gaps in the food chain and therefore some species would get wiped out while others leave the area.

He agreed with the decision of the authorities not to venture deep into the mangroves, saying the remaining mangrove life could get disturbed or trampled.

Other countries, he said, have methods and machinery to wash away oil from sand and mud but Sri Lanka could not afford this technology and expert supervision was also not available locally.

Environmentalists condemned the CPC, saying its reckless actions had damaged valuable waterways.

The head of the Organisation of Aquatic Resources Management, Shantha Jayaweera, said that the contaminated area was home to critically endangered freshwater fish such as the Ornate Paradise Fish (malpulutta), Walking Catfish (dandi), Desilva’s Blind Eel and brackish water fish such as Scatfish.

“The oil leak is enough to drive the remaining fish to extinction,” he said

He said oxygen going into the lagoon was contaminated by oil and that oil-smothered fish surfacing to suck in air were choked and killed when the oil harmed their gills.

Reptiles would keep dying of skin burns as well as poisoning, and in turn birds and mammals would also die slow deaths by poisoning after consuming the dead fish or by consuming oil while cleaning themselves.

The Chairman of the Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle, Supun Lahiru Prakash said the Muthurajawela wetlands were home to seven species of animals and 449 species of wildlife, and 26 of them were endemic to Sri Lanka.

He said the CPC had not been concerned about the importance of the lagoon when laying pipelines through the area.

He warned residents of the area to be vigilant as lack of food and destruction of the marsh snakes, could drive monitor lizards and crocodiles in the wetlands into human habitat in search of food.

Mr. Prakash said the authorities should continue the clean-up because the oil in the lagoon would spread to the Hamilton Canal when the booms are removed.

He warned that if that happened 26 fishing villages and 3,000 families living nearby would be affected.

Fisherman Eric Roshan, 43, said he used lagoon shrimps, prawns and small fish as bait when he goes fishing in the sea but was not able to fish after the leak due to lack of bait. He also said fishermen could not take their boats out into the Hamilton Canal due to the booms.

He claimed the CPC and MEPA had encouraged fisher families to collect the leaked kerosene and help in the clean-up effort but that they had not been paid or even been provided with gloves and as a result children and women engaged in the work had developed skin diseases and injuries.

The head of the Kaldiyawatte Alluth Akkaraya Fishermen’s Association, Ajith Nelson, said the leak took place on the morning of December 31 and that his members had informed the navy, coastguards and the CPC.

“We alerted everyone, even tried to clean it up and make use of the oil. Now most of us feel sluggish as the strong smell of kerosene and dead fish is making us sick. Our boats cannot enter water for fishing so we need compensation,” he said.

A coastguard oil spill response team was sent to clean up the area when as soon as news broke of the leak. Coordinating Officer Dhammika Ekanayake said the team went to the area after the navy informed them, around 4am on December 31.

He explained that the clean-up teams first secured the Hamilton Canal by placing water booms across it to prevent the oil drifting into the canal.

Mr. Ekanayake said although the coastguards possessed 10,000 litres of chemicals used for removal of oil they had to use absorbent pads to mop up the oil mechanically.

He said that the team cleaned the lagoon for six days and stopped after MEPA officials told them further work would cause more damage.

CPC union sources revealed that two pipelines were placed under the Muthurajawela marsh. One had been used to carry furnace oil to the Kerawalapitiya oil storage depot while the other carried diesel oil.

The union sources said the furnace oil-carrying line was abandoned in 2014 when furnace oil was not needed for electricity.

They said an official who held a seat under the previous government had issued orders to use seawater to flush out furnace oil during repairs on the pipe, overriding protests by unionists and other officials.

The repairs were completed but the water had not been flushed out for about a year. It had finally been decided to flush out the water before January 1 this year but suddenly the other pipe had to be put to repair and therefore they flushed the seawater out of the first line and started pumping a type of kerosene also used as jet fuel through it.

He claimed the leak took place from about 2am on December 31 and continued until 7.15am when authorities stopped the leak.

He said they found that the pipe, which extends more than 1km under the lagoon to the sea, was corroded.

Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminal Ltd (CPSTL) Chairman Shehan Seneviratne said discussions are being heldwith four teams of technicians from Israel and China for technical assistance to see whether the rest of the pipe was intact and usable.

He denied that the CPC had encouraged locals to clean up the area. He said people volunteered to help because it was in their interest to do so.

Mr. Seneviratne said, however, that CPSTL would pay compensation to eight fisher families and 22 boat owners. Officials were still assessing damage and would put aside more than Rs. 900,000 for compensation.

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