With a container ship leaking dangerous chemicals on fire at sea for over 12 nerve-racking days despite the best efforts of the fire-fighting crew to extinguish its wind swept flames, a major disaster on land broke out last Friday night when oil stored in the tanks at the Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery started to flow into [...]


Inland oil leak nearly made capital run dry


OIL DISASTER ON TWO FRONTS: While navy divers were fighting to prevent X-Press Pearl’s oil from leaking to the sea, others were fighting on land to stop Sapugaskanda’s oil from flowing to the Kelani

With a container ship leaking dangerous chemicals on fire at sea for over 12 nerve-racking days despite the best efforts of the fire-fighting crew to extinguish its wind swept flames, a major disaster on land broke out last Friday night when oil stored in the tanks at the Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery started to flow into the inland waters of the River Kelani, raising grave fears that the capital and its environs will be rendered dry should the water supply be contaminated as a result.

Following heavy rains which deluged parts of the Gampaha District where the oil refinery is situated, furnace oil stored in the refinery’s depot began overflowing into the neighbourhood, on course to keep a fatal tryst with the Kelani River. The fear that night was if the oil reached the river, it would adversely affect water distribution from the Ambathale and Biyagama water treatment plants which supply the Colombo and Gampaha Districts respectively.

Navy divers were immediately rushed to the scene and were deployed to avert a capital disaster which would otherwise have left millions in Colombo and Gampaha without access to drinking, washing and cooking water. The divers’ task was to skim the furnace oil from the flood waters, and floating booms were placed to stop its further spread. The Navy said that the Heiyanthuduwa area in Sapugaskanda has been flooded due to heavy rains and there is a risk of the furnace oil together with flood water in the Sapugaskanda area drifting into the Kelani River through the Pattivila canal.

Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara said on Sunday that they were alert to the danger posed to the Ambathale Water Treatment plant by the oil spillage but the Water Board’s and Petroleum Corporation’s engineers were taking the necessary steps to prevent the oil from spreading further.

Though earlier it was thought the disaster was due to a leak, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation’s Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya wing’s (JSS) Secretary Ananda Palitha claimed it was due to inadequate supervision and operation of the slop oil being stored in pits or tanks in the Oil Refineries. He told newspapers that this overflow of oil cannot be treated as an oil leak. “The Slop Oil, by definition, is considered crude oil which is emulsified with water and solids rendering it a waste stream that cannot be sent down the pipeline. This type is not environmentally friendly. Therefore, the Slop Oil is being stored in pits or tanks.”

“These oil pits need to have a proper supervision, as they get filled occasionally with water since that is stored underground. The petroleum corporation occasionally uses gully bowsers to suck and empty the pits. However, with the current rainy weather conditions, the pits are filled with water and spills off. This is not an oil leak,” he said.

The Energy Ministry’s Secretary, D R Olga was reported to have said on Monday that the situation had risen due to the mixing of oil and rain water in a fuel storage tank, owing to the recent heavy rains. She said this was not a regular occurrence and that the ministry hopes to take steps to prevent a repeat.

Announcing his decision to appoint a committee to probe the incident and to recommend ways to bolt the door after the oil had fled was Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila, who, incidentally, declared in March this year he had established a new world record by being the first subject minister to have climbed down an oil tank to the very bottom. This largely in-house committee of four is headed by his own private secretary as chairman, a ministry assistant secretary (administration), the Petroleum Corporation’s operations manager and an attorney-at-law brought from outside.

These are the members, Minister Gammanpila has thought fit to appoint to his committee of inquiry ‘to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the incident and to find out the factors that contributed to the incident and to recommend action to be taken to prevent a recurrence of such incidents’. Whether such a committee will possess the scientific knowledge necessary to probe the cause and to recommend measures to prevent a reoccurrence is anyone’s guess.

Does the minister realise the gravity of the issue? The extent of the damage that would have resulted had the oil contaminated the waters of the Kelani that feeds the Ambathale water treatment plant which in turn supplies the residents of Greater Colombo, presidential household included, with clean water to wash and drink? That millions living in the metropolitan area had their access to drinking water placed at risk with the oil spillage last Friday?

With residents in neighbouring areas already complaining their wells have been contaminated with Sapugaskanda’s oil slick, raising fears that the oil may have seeped into the water  table; with the Ambathale and Biyagama water treatment plants only a short distance away,  with the pumping station at Pattivila even less, the Cabinet itself should appoint an independent committee of competent personnel with the required technical expertise to not only probe the cause and identify where blame for any lapse should fall but also to recommend the measures that must be taken to prevent a recurrence of last Friday’s disaster. Such a task should not be left to Gammanpila alone to pick and choose its members amongst his own staff at his whim and fancy.

Else, should a full blown disaster occur due to lack of adequate safeguards , what will be most at risk, apart from environmental damage, is access to clean water — life’s driving force — for the native inhabitants of the nation’s commercial capital and, not forgetting, of course,  the Chinese tenants of the rising Chinese built Port City.

If Minister Gammanpila could record his singular feat of climbing down an empty tank to the very bottom on his Facebook account with pride, would he also record the dubious honour of presiding over Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery’s disaster, coming so soon after his hailed inspection tour three months ago, on his Facebook account with shame?


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