Tarballs on India’s west coast: A tale of shifting responsibilities

Synopsis: Tarballs, how they are formed, their impact on environment and judicial & legal provisions dealing with such issues.


Tarballs hit the news headlines recently when they started appearing on well-known beaches of Mumbai and Goa. These aquatic pollutants have flooded Anjuna, Morjim, Colva and Mandrem beaches in Goa as well as Juhu, Versova, Dadar and Cuff Parade shorelines in Mumbai.

What are tarballs and how are they formed?

Tarballs are dark-coloured substances formed from weathering of crude oil floating on the ocean surface. These are dropped off to shores by waves and sea currents. They accumulate in several sizes ranging from small globules to those as big as a basketball.

Discharge from municipal waste, oil-well blowouts, deliberate and accidental release of bilge and ballast water from ships are among the main factors driving the formation of these pollutants.

What are the challenges being posed by tarballs?

Bacterial threat: Tarballs can be hazardous to human life due to the presence of Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria whose entry through wounds could be fatal.

Marine biodiversity: These petroleum blobs also affect marine biodiversity in several ways, such as disturbing turtle habitats. This in turn, augments the impact on humans who consume marine fish.

Difficult to clean: The tarballs are difficult to wash off from the cleaning equipment thereby posing a challenge for authorities.

Why tarballs are being seen on the western coast of India?

The presence of tarballs can indicate oil spills.

Oil spills and circulation patterns: In addition to the big spills near Mumbai, the Arabian Sea experiences oil spills routinely as it is also a crowded oil transportation waterway, with western coast corporations like Bombay High, Panna-Mukta oil field, Tapti gas fields and Essar Oil.

All the oil spilled in the Arabian sea eventually gets deposited on the western coast in the form of tarballs during monsoon, when the wind speed and circulation patterns favour their transportation.

How have authorities responded to the problem?

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and the Environment Ministry have not addressed the tarball crisis yet, maintaining that they do not have a legal mandate.

As per MPCB, it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the cleaning of beaches or in the deep oceans, where the oil leaks usually occur. It is also not authorised to control or produce guidelines for vessels and ships.

Who is liable for the tarball pollution?

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Apex Court, in several cases, have held the polluters liable for oil spills and other actions that have harshly impacted the marine environment.

In the Ramdas Janardan Koli vs The Secretary to Govt of India, Union Ministry of Environment & Forest and Ors case, the NGT had given relief to 1,630 fisher families of Raigad district who were adversely affected by Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust’s (JNPT) project. The tribunal held that the expansion of the port activities by JNPT was a threat to the environment. Also, the oil spill had added to the loss of ecology and environment and ordered compensation of the affected families.

In the Samir Mehta vs Union of India and Ors, the NGT bench upheld the “precautionary principle” and the “polluter pays” principle, along with the fundamental right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. The landmark judgement ordered a Panama-based shipping company, along with its Qatar-based sister concerns, to pay damages caused by the sinking of their ship off Mumbai’s coast in 2011.

Must Read: What are some pre-existing legal provisions for environmental protection in India?
What is the way forward?

Lawmakers must take up environmental concerns as a priority, apart from the collective efforts of the vigilant citizens, activists and environmentalists.

Government regulations on licensing, oil filling at designated ports must be thoroughly followed and commissions must be set up for specifically dealing with coastal management.

Source: This post is based on the article “Tarballs on India’s west coast: A tale of shifting responsibilities” published in Down to Earth on 4th Oct 2021.

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