Oil tanker sinks in the east china sea: like the “exxon valdez

An Iranian oil tanker collides with a Chinese freighter and sinks after a week. The environmental damage is catastrophic.

The "Sanchi" burned for a week before it sank Photo: ap

The "Sanchi" burned for almost a week. On Sunday, the Iranian oil tanker sank in the East China Sea. Probably none of the 32-member crew survived. Contrary to assurances of the Chinese authorities, the U.S. oceanologist Richard Steiner fears a worse environmental catastrophe than almost 29 years ago with the accident of the "Exxon Valdez" off the coast of Alaska.

The tanker had collided with a Chinese freighter on January 7 for reasons that remain unexplained. While the crew of the freighter survived, all 32 crew members of the tanker most likely died. Only two bodies have been recovered. 30 of them came from Iran, two from Bangladesh. On board the tanker: 136,000 tons of oil condensate and around 1,000 tons of particularly toxic heavy oil.

The Sanchi had been burning for days. Time and again, there were serious explosions on board. Steiner, who has investigated many oil disasters for the environmental protection organization Oasis Earth, suspects that none of the fuel tankers is still leak-proof.

Even if only 20 percent of the cargo spilled, that would be equivalent to the amount of crude oil that spilled when the oil tanker "Exxon Valdez" ran aground off the coast of Alaska in 1989, Steiner told AFP. The accident triggered one of the largest maritime environmental disasters to that time. Some 37,000 tons of crude oil spilled, damaging the fragile ecosystem. More than 2,000 kilometers of coastline were contaminated.

China authorities appease

The Chinese authorities had feared an oil spill after the Sanchi accident. But now they have given the all-clear and affirmed that the environmental impact is limited. According to the Chinese state media, there is indeed an oil slick. It is about 18 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide. But the light oil has "less impact on the sea," a representative of the China Maritime Administration assured state broadcaster CCTV. He added that the impact on humans was low because the tanker sank far from the coast.

But now prominent environmental activist Ma Jun is also warning of a disaster. The fact that the ship sank before the oil cargo could burn completely was the "worst thing that could happen after the accident," Ma told the state-run newspaper Global Times. Oil condensate is "particularly toxic to marine life." The fact that no large oil slick has formed on the ocean surface is due to this particular oil. Oil condensate, however, forms a toxic column of hydrocarbons underwater that is life-threatening to fish and other animals in the sea, which are then consumed by seabirds and humans. Fish eggs and larvae are also exposed to the toxic components, he said.

Stephan Lutter, marine conservation expert at WWF Germany, points out that the site where the "Sanchi" sank is a shallow sea with tidal flats and is considered "particularly vulnerable." Condensate leaking from the sunken tanker is toxic to marine mammals, fish, turtles and seabirds, he said. "An environmental disaster is unfolding before our eyes," Lutter says.

Oceanologist Steiner warns that even the spilled oil will have an impact on the environment months later. Since no one is likely to investigate the environmental consequences, he says, the government and ship owners can be expected to get away with claiming that the damage is only limited.