KARACHI, Aug 15: Residents of coastal areas were exposed to a host of environmental hazards on Thursday after the PNSC-chartered 24-year-old oil tanker Tasman Spirit broke up on Thursday.

Shipping authorities and salvage workers at a press conference on Thursday evening declared that the vessel, which ran aground about 20 days back, had broken up after developing cracks, adding that efforts were under way to secure its two parts at the site.

Unable to quantify the amount of crude oil spilled so far from the Japanese-made oil tanker, senior officials, including Federal Minister for Communications Ahmad Ali, claimed there was no significant threat to human or marine life. Necessary arrangements had been made to avert major pollution, they stressed.

According to the salvage personnel and media men who have had the opportunity to watch the grounded ship from a distance of about 100 metres, the ill-fated vessel had almost submerged at about 350 metres from the KPT’s groyne yard.

“About two-thirds of the ship, including 11.9 metres draft, is now invisible as water is flowing over it,” said a motorboat owner, adding that the only visible part was its bridge where one could still read the words, “Protect Our Environment”. Protecting the environment is now surely a daunting task before the maritime and environment experts.

An official involved in the damage-control operation said: “An uncalled-for mishap has taken place and now the only job left with is to pump out the remaining oil from the oil tanker, while the ship-breakers would do the rest in the months to come.”

According to some shipping industry sources, the oil tanker was built at Ominichy Dockyard, Japan, in 1979 using high tensile steel, a strong metal of generally lesser thickness. The ship, owned by Plumbrass Company, carried 27 crew members of Singaporean, Chinese and Greek origin and was skippered by a Greek national.

Both citizens and shipping industry people have criticized the KPT’s handling of the disaster. They questioned the port authorities decision to allow an aging vessel to enter the port.

While the authorities are not ready to speak about the size of the spillage, guesswork is continuing. Referring to the figures given by the officials from time to time, an insider said about 7,000 to 9,000 tons of oil, out of a total 67,532 tons, was believed to have been seeped into the sea, while 19,000 tons had been shifted to another vessel.

However, Communications Secretary Iftikhar Rasheed and KPT Chairman Vice-Admiral Ahmad Hayat until Friday were firm on their stand that every possible action had been taken to avert the disaster and allegations of mishandling of the situation were unfair.

The vessel was allowed to enter the channel in view of its international certifications, while the KPT utilized all the resources and equipment available at its disposal to overcome the crisis in consultation of local and international experts on marine and environments, they maintained.

Speaking at a press conference at the KPT headquarters on Friday, Communications Minister Ahmad Ali said the grounding of the ship and its breaking up later was just an accident.

He said leakage from the ship had stopped, while navy divers were continuing their operation to evaluate the situation. He said he had been informed that the spray of chemicals from an aeroplane had been started, following which the oil would not only evaporate but would also cause the disintegration of hydrocarbons, mainly benzene, and thereafter their settling down in the sea.

Mr Ali said all that had happened so far was an accident and people should hope for the best. He said the stench was subsiding.

The KPT chairman said as soon as the weather permitted, the second phase of securing and shifting of remaining oil fro the oil tanker would be launched. The operation could take another ten days, he pointed out.

In response to a question, he said none of the crew members had been taken into custody over the incident. He said SEPA had started monitoring damage caused to the environment and the people would be informed of its findings.

On Thursday, the federal communications secretary had said the government had constituted a four-member committee to look into the reasons behind the grounding of the oil tanker.

However, he said, the top priority was being given to control the oil spill. He maintained that the worst was over and there would be no further damage to shipping or environment. He said the vessel had broken up in two parts from the middle, while its pipes and valves had been properly sealed or plugged to stop leakage of crude oil.

He pointed out that the damage and spillage had been checked due to the effective measures taken by the port authorities, Pakistan Navy and the ministry of communications, besides other departments.

He said the oil slick had only caused cosmetic effects, but efforts were continuing to clean the beaches.

The federal ministry for environment had also constituted a committee to evaluate the impact on environment due to oil spill, said Director-General of PEPA, Asif S. Khan.

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