Oil Tanker Sinks off China’s Coast as Environmental Disaster Looms
Iranian-operated and Panamian-flagged oil tanker Sanchi has sunk off Chinese coast a week after its collision with freight ship CF Crystal. China Central Television reported that Sanchi sunk following a giant explosion that rocked the ship and engulfed it with tall flames.
Iranian officials have confirmed that all 32 crew members of the oil tanker were killed, following earlier Chinese media reports that the search-and-rescue operations being conducted were cancelled and the focus has begun to shift towards a clean-up operation.
Despite an international search-and-rescue effort started by China, South Korea and the United States that was later joined by Japan and Iran, bad weather and a powerful fire ultimately prevented rescue ships from approaching the burning oil tanker.
The cause of the collision that set off the fire remains unclear, but the ship’s voice data recorder, somewhat similar to an airplane’s “black box” has been recovered and will be analyzed.
China’s official news agency, Xinhua, and China’s National Oceanic Bureau have confirmed that there is an oil spill present and that authorities are currently actively monitoring the situation.
Surveillance planes dispatched to the area report that the oil slick is expanding rapidly northwards, with the oil slick already five times its original size. Water samples tested by Chinese maritime authorities show the water to be “worse than grade four” on a four-tier grading system, with grade one being suitable for conducting fishing.
The ship’s cargo of 1 million barrels of condensate may pose serious environmental concerns on the nearby fishing grounds and China’s eastern coasts. Condensate easily evaporates or burns off in a fire but can be devastating to the marine environment if trapped underwater.
Allowing the ship to sink was described by a former Chinese maritime official as a “worst-case scenario” due to the danger it posed to the nearby marine and coastal environments.
Greenpeace has stated that the oil spill is likely to affect the spawning grounds of various species of fish and the migratory routes of various other marine species, including three species of whale. On the other hand, some scientists believe that concerns over poisoned seafood supply might be overblown as fish population in the area has long been depleted.
Ultimately, authorities believe that any further impact of the oil spill will still depend on how much condensate remained in the tanker following the fire and the nearby wind and current directions.