Sanchi disaster in the East China Sea

From ToxicLeaks

East China Sea accident and explosion[edit | edit source]

The Sanchi was an oil tanker owned by the National Iranian Tanker Corporation (NITC), a state-owned entity that with some 65 tankers is one of the largest such companies in the world. The removal of sanctions against Iran, following the 2015 nuclear power deal with Tehran, allowed NITC ships to move freely among international waters and ports with some 15.5 million tons in capacity for petrochemical products. The Sanchi was a Panamanian-flagged tanker carrying a full 136,000 ton load of crude oil and condensate – a highly volatile and ultra-light product. It was en route from India to Daesan, South Korea.

The ship collided with the CF Crystal, a Chinese freighter headed for Guangdong, on January 6, 2018, in the East China Sea, about 300 kilometers from Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta. The Sanchi exploded and burned following the accident. The lives of 32 crew members, all Iranian with two from Bangladesh, were lost. The 21 crew members aboard the Crystal were rescued. Finally, the Sanchi sank and remains at the bottom of the sea – the cause of ongoing concern over environmental damage.

Environmental impact at oil spill site[edit | edit source]

After the collision, an oil slick within a ring of flames was visible at the accident site. By January 8, oil leaking from the hull was identified as a risk for explosion, which first occurred on January 10. The doomed Sanchi drifted for days with ocean currents that pushed it southeast at about 2.2 kilometers per hour. It entered Japan’s economic zone on January 12, when the burning ghost ship sank about 310 kilometers from Naha on Okinawa, part of the Ryukyu Island territories disputed by China and Japan.

The oil tanker accident is believed to be the worst since a similar 1991 spill off the coast of Angola, but Chinese officials downplayed the environmental disaster at first. Maritime authorities based in Shanghai established a 10 nautical mile (18.5 kilometer) zone around the oil slick, and international responders including South Korea and the United States hoped that much of the condensate would burn off rather than contaminate the ocean, including important whale migration and fishing zones, and any coasts.

Instead, the oil slick tripled in size and the burning ship spewed poisonous gas into the air for days. The Chinese Ministry of Transport said the condensate contained toxic hydrogen sulfide, mercaptan and other components expected to pollute the air, while the fire generated nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and other toxic smoke. While the 1 million barrels of condensate on board weren’t expected to create a classic oil slick – typically associated with crude oil, including the ship’s own – they were expected to burn off. That process wasn’t complete when the ship sank to a depth of 115 meters, complicating the cleanup of what is now considered an unprecedented condensate spill.

“Condensate has never before been unleashed into the sea in large quantities,” the journal Nature reported. ‘Unlike heavy crude, condensate doesn’t accumulate in shimmering slicks on the water’s surface, which makes it difficult to monitor and contain. Neither does it sink to the ocean floor.” It remains suspended in water up to 10 meters below the surface; it may also leak from the sunken Sanchi. So it’s not easy to clean up with known industry methods, and is toxic to marine life that’s exposed to it.

That runs across a range from tiny plankton to the humpback, right and gray whales. Greenpeace added other potential wildlife impacts to: bluefin leatherjacket (Thamnaconus septentrionalis), the swordtip squid (Uroteuthis edulis), hairtail (Trichiurus japonicus), yellow croaker (Larimichthys polyactis), chub mackerel (Scomber japonicus) and the blue crab (Portunus trituberculatus). The BBC obtained satellite images that show fishing continued in affected areas, raising concern over contaminated food supplies.

The Chinese announced on February 1 that fish samples taken from the site show traces of hydrocarbon. That’s in an area producing 5 million tons of seafood for China, in a fishing industry of 14 million people.

Delayed impacts affecting Japan[edit | edit source]

China’s ocean current models originally predicted no impacts to Japan or other countries, with the exception of some Japanese sardine and anchovy fisheries, although both Chinese and European models predicted pollution would be picked up by the Kuroshio current. China has turned out to be wrong.

On January 28, contamination was found on Takarajima island. On February 21, the Japanese Coast Guard said that oil linked to the Sanchi began washing up on Yoron and Okinoerabu islands on February 8. All told, the contamination has affected at least 21 southern islands, where local agencies and residents have been working to remove oily clumps from beach areas. An oil slick also remained over the site where Sanchi sank, adding to fears that the ship – like others before it – continues to leak oil.

Sanchi accident response and responsibility[edit | edit source]

China responded harshly to criticism of its rescue and response efforts, but by March 2018 there was still little understanding of what caused the accident, how broad the impacts are and what long-term effects are likely to be. Also complicated are questions about who will pay for the loss of $USD 60 million in product, the expense of a lengthy cleanup, and any compensation to Japan or the fishing industries.

Compensation may come from China’s COPC fund, a smaller national version of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds program. The Sanchi case is complicated because the ship and crew are Iranian, making financial transactions more difficult because of U.S. restrictions still in place despite the 2016 lifting of global sanctions tied to the nuclear deal. Further complicating the scenario is that the Sanchi collision occurred on the high seas. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires insurance on all carriers, and the United Nations is working on new regulations to protect oceans and marine life on a range of conservation measures. As of March 2018, no liability was established yet for the Sanchi environmental disaster. In international waters, though, only criminal laws of the flag state – in this case, low-enforcement Panama – apply when seeking justice for environmental crimes.

Finally, analysts believe that both China and Japan were slow to respond because of their long and contentious relationship over the disputed territories where the accident occurred. The magnitude of the Sanchi disaster sparked calls to overcome the political barriers to ensure environmental action.