Potential Disaster as Oil Tanker Collides and Burns in East China Sea
Efforts to contain a fire aboard an oil tanker in the East China Sea continues as the ship burns for a fourth day following a collision with another cargo ship last Saturday. The collision occurred approximately 260 kilometers (160 miles) off the coast of Shanghai, increasing the stakes of a potential oil spill.
The Panama-flagged oil tanker, named Sanchi, was built by Hyundai Samho Heavy Industries and is currently operated by the National Iranian Tanker Company, itself owned by the Iranian government-owned National Iranian Oil Company.
Much of the crew, comprised of 30 Iranian nationals and 2 Bangladeshi nationals, remains missing as only one body of an Iranian crew member was found. All 21 crew members of the CF Crystal, the Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship that the Sanchi collided with, have been rescued.
China’s Ministry of Transportation stated that more than 14 ships are present at the scene of the collision. This includes ships from South Korea and the United States as the three countries try to conduct firefighting, search-and-rescue, and potentially cleanup efforts. The Ministry of Transportation also claimed that the current extend of the spill is unclear.
Chinese and Korean authorities have stated that bad weather, ranging from strong waves to rain and wind, is hampering rescue efforts. Currently, the main concern is that the ship will explode and sink, leading to the complete spilling of the ship’s cargo.
This fear was realized when the ship partially exploded Wednesday, forcing rescue ships to retreat.
The Sanchi is currently carrying approximately 1 million barrels of condensate, a type of low-density and ultra-light oil. The spilling of the condensate is expected to have a smaller environmental impact than the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident due to condensate easily evaporating or burning, unlike the heavy crude that the Exxon Valdez carried and spilled.
However, condensate is still highly toxic and much more explosive than heavy crude oil, evaporated condensate can cause the air to become flammable and lead to large explosions. Due to condensate also being colorless and almost odorless, it will also be extremely difficult to detect its presence in any cleanup efforts.
The impact of any spill will highly depend on the location, the weather conditions, and the type of oil carried. The Exxon Valdez incident is often remembered as one of the most catastrophic oil spill in history after spilling 11 million barrels of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. On the other hand, the 1979 Atlantic Empress spill off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago saw 90 million barrels of oil released into the ocean, but very little of that reached the coasts and arguably caused a smaller environmental damage than the Valdez.