Please see below for a video and a partial transcript from a Q & A session with Mike Ziccardi in regards to December’s oil spill in Bangladesh!
A cargo ship rammed a tanker in Bangladesh’s Sela River in December of 2014, spilling 92,000 gallons of oil into the world’s largest mangrove forest. The Sundarbans, which is where the spill happened, is listed as three different wildlife sanctuaries, and is a world heritage site. OWCN Director Mike Ziccardi was called in to help with the assessment, spending about two weeks in the country during the spill’s aftermath.
We sat down with Mike a few weeks after he got back to talk about the experience.
When were you called in to the situation?
A week after the spill, I was contacted with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) because the Bangladeshi government was considering using chemical dispersants to get rid of the oil. Due to my involvement with NOAA in writing the national guidelines for oiled marine mammal response, I was put on stand by and then deployed as part of the UN Mission along with USAID and other American experts from NOAA.
What was your recommendation regarding chemical dispersants in this case?
Chemical dispersants can be useful, but they can also be dangerous in sensitive habitats because it does not completely get rid of the oil, and the chemicals can introduce more concerns. The possibility of the chemicals being absorbed by a lot of creatures and plants was a large concern because the spill was very close to shore.
When is using a dispersant a good idea?
They are less risky to use in open water areas. In California we have the pre-approval to use some dispersants if needed, but they need to be used off-shore. For example, if they wanted to use a dispersant in the San Francisco Bay, there would need to be an extensive discussion with great consideration of the potential negative impacts.
What were some of the chief concerns in regards to this spill?
The Bangladeshi government became very concerned about the environmental damage to the Sundarbans and for the wildlife living there, particularly because there are more than twenty globally endangered species of wildlife in the area. The royal Bengal tiger lives in the Sundarbans, and we believe there are less than 200 of them in the area. There are also two species of dolphin (Irrawaddy dolphin and the long-nosed Gangetic river dolphin) that reside there, both of which are threatened or endangered internationally.
What was the local response to the spill?
When an oil spill occurs, the first week is typically devoted to clean- up. With this spill, they had no spill response capabilities in the country. The Bangladeshi government did send some Navy ships out to use a contaminant boom (a temporary floating barrier used to contain an oil spill), but unfortunately the oil went right under the boom. A majority of the oil clean- up was done by local fisherman, with no protective gear, boots, gloves, or training on how to handle an oil spill.
How did the spill happen?
This passageway was a tanker vessel’s access to the sea. Unfortunately, the legal way to pass through this area was blocked off due to sediment build up, so shipping had to go through the Sela River. Commercial ships are not allowed in this part of the Sela River because there are three dolphin sanctuaries in the river and the spill actually occurred in one of them.
What was evaluated from the spill?
Four of the response subgroups were dedicated to mangrove, aquatic habitats, and the impacts on the people in the area. We were able to determine some of the acute impacts right away, however some of the recommendations we are making to the Bangladeshi government are long term, to make sure that we are looking at the overall picture. We want to continue accessing the environment and wildlife for at least the next 2-3 years for population changes.
What are the main concerns for the wildlife in the area?
The freshwater crocodile in the area are fairly endangered, and oil can affect the eggs that they lay. If the oil that is in the environment washes over the eggs, the population can be affected. There are also two populations of river otters, which are at a high risk of oil problems, so we need to monitor those. Of course the two populations of dolphins and the tigers all need to be monitored as well—to see if they are hunting and moving away from their habitats.
What are the next steps for the preservation of the Sundarbans?
Right now we have a report that was generated through the UN Mission which discusses the need for ongoing assessment of the Sundarbans, in addition to recommendations for response planning for future spills. I believe there will be a UN group going back to the Sundarbans and that the Wildlife Conservation Society will likely also be going back as they are the world’s leader in fresh water dolphin research and took part in the spill response. My hope is that they will be able to develop a plan for the dolphins in the area and for the people around the Sundarbans with local and international support.
— Interview and video by Desiree Aguiar and Justin Cox