Search This Blog

Friday, January 7, 2011

A spill of a different kind - something at Houston

Sea often throws up interesting things and here is something floating on sea which has stirred up anxious news.

During Aug 2010, Mumbai coast was threatened by the collision of MSC Chitra with MV Khalijia III – it was containers awash and the precarious situtation of oil slick.  The beauty of coast and navigational waters is often polluted by ships, especially oil carriers.  At common law, the liability of ship owners for maritime pollution is dealt with by the torts of nuisance and negligence.    There is MARPOL, the principal international convention dealing with the prevention of pollution of marine environ by ships from accidental or other causes.  There is also the Bunkers convention adopted in 2001 under the auspices of IMO aimed at ensuring effective compensation for persons suffering out of oil spills.
Perhaps it is not persons alone – the sea and land creatures also suffer.  The marine wealth – the fishes, oysters, prawns and other crustaceans would suffer. So also the fisherman whose existence  depend on these.  Often penguins get caught in oil slicks.  There are specially knit penguin sweaters which stop them preening their feathers when poisoned by oil slick.  The sweaters are removed and discarded only when the penguins are cleaned of the oil. 

The sea was struck by a disaster when Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for California struck Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels  of crude oil.  This is a large ocean inlet off the Gulf of Alaska and accident was considered to be one of the most devastating environmental disasters.   The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (BP Oil spill) is much bigger in magnitude.   The containment and response at Prince William reef was greatly impeded as it was a remote location accessible only by helicopter, plane and boat.

Technically, an oil spill is a release of  liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment due to human activity, and is a form of pollution. The term often refers to marine oil spills, where oil is released into the ocean or coastal waters.  These could be release of crude from tankers, off shore platforms,  rigs and wells as also release of diesel, crude,  refined petroleum products  and heavier fuels used by large ships.  Unforutnately, oil spills could take long time for clean up. 

The oil that floats on the surface of water penetrates into the pulmage of birds, impairing their flying abilities,  impact their temperature and affects them manifold.  As they try to clean their wing, they might ingest the harmful oil further damaging its body system.  Marine animals like Seals, otters, penguins are also badly affected by oil spills.  Cleaning up and recovery is far difficult and depends on multifarious factors such as the type of oil, the temperature of water, shore line, winds, weather, movement of vessels and more.

In Nov 2007, the vessel  Cosco Busan spilt oil between  San Francisco and Oakland, California.   53,500 USgal of IFO-380 heavy fuel oil,  also known as  "bunker fuel",  was split arising out of the container ship hitting the Delta tower of San FranciscoOakland Bay Bridge in thick fog.  It is reported that maritime pilot could not use the onboard radar and electronic maps correctly and the Vessel Traffic Service of US Coast Guard did not provide proper warning to the vessel.   There are reports now that the owners and operators of Cosco Busan have agreed to pay San Francisco’s local fishermen damages as compensation.  Earlier, the Fleet management had pleaded guilty to federal charges of water pollution and falsifying documents.

Now, at Houston, three is a spill of a totally different kind.  It is ‘tallow’ – the animal fat.   Tallow is a rendered form of beef or mutton fat, solid at room temperature and can be stored for long periods unrefrigerated without decomposing if  insulated from oxidation.   It is animal fat commercially derived from pigs and other animals;  the melting point is known as titre.   It is used in many processes such as making soap, cooking, bird food, raw material for dio diesel and even candles.   Steel rolling industry is known to use it for lubrication in compressing steel rollers. Before switching to pure vegetable oil,  the McDonald's corporation  is reported to have used tallow with cottonseed oil for french fries.  

The use of tallow provided the spark to the Indian Freedom fight often referred as Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 when for loading the new apttern 1853 Enfield rifles, the sepoys had to bite the cartridge open.  

Coast Guard Houston have received a report from the National Response Centre that a shore based storage tank had breached spilling approx 250000 gallons of beef tallow and a majority of this entered the Houston ship channel via a storm drain.  Unlike oil, tallow does not create a sheen on the water and turns into a thick pattie.

The owners of the damaged tank have been notified and a leading Environmental services have been contracted for clean up operations.  It is stated there is no inbound or outward traffic delay and the nature of the product is expected to cause minimal impact.    The rupture in shore tank is ascribed to human error.  The huge chunks of tallow floating were being removed by use of pitchforks and fishnets.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.


  1. Of the very few items in the negative list of Indian import is tallow - a good piece on this - Vinod

  2. this is good idea to talk n i think people like it..