India is fighting to stave off an environmental disaster because of the leak. Sources say grave lapses led to the ships colliding.
Maharashtra Environment Minister Suresh Shetty has said there is a vessel traffic monitoring system which tracks ships and there seems to have been a miscommunication between the control and the captains of the ships because of a frequency problem.
Shetty said both these companies to which these ships belonged would have to bear the cost of the clean-up.
That could take some doing as, in a double whammy, there is an oil slick that is spreading fast with about three to four tones of oil spilling every hour and drums filled with pesticide have detached from the MSC Chitra - one of the ships that collided and is tilting precariously - and are now floating dangerously in the sea, also becoming a navigation hazard.
When the MSC Chitra collided with the Khalijia on Saturday, it had a cargo of 1,219 containers holding 2662 tonnes of fuel, 283 tonnes of diesel and 88040 litres of lubricant oil. Thirty-one containers had pesticide in them. The Chitra tilted sharply under the impact of the collision, resulting in the oil spill and now, containers of pesticide bobbing off on the sea.
Some of the containers have drifted near the Gateway of India.
Worse, about 400 tonnes of oil have been spilt, spreading over two to three kilometers already and will take about a month to clear, the government has said.
The oil is now spreading because of high tide. The slick has reached the beaches of Alibaug, Marva and the Elephanta caves in Mumbai and is also threatening the mangrove belt along the coastline. Efforts are on to ensure it does not.
The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has been alerted as the slick has also reached the Sewree area where it is located.
Water samples are being tested in the sea from the Mumbai coast to Raigad and six coast guard ships have been deployed to neutralise fuel and pollution.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has said that the oil spill is a serious concern. "The oil slick off the Mumbai coast is a serious worry and the government is trying its best to contain the damage," Chavan told NDTV. (Watch)
The government has sounded an alert for fisherman and others along the coast asking them not to venture out at sea and has asked people to avoid eating fish.
Concerned over the oil spill, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday called for a report from the Shipping Ministry on the incident. "The Prime Minister has called for a preliminary report from the Shipping Ministry on the oil spill," PMO sources said.
The issue was also raised in the Rajya Sabha where Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said legal action has been initiated against owners of the two vessels.
"Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board has already initiated legal action against the owners of the ships," Ramesh said.
The worry also is that there can be a bigger disaster waiting to happen if the MSC Chitra cannot be refloated. A ship that size can change the fish habitat, alter the topography of land nearby and poison the sea in the area for decades once it floods.
The key questions that need to be answered fast now are, does India have the technology to deal with this sort of marine disaster? Can the ship, which is broken, be welded where it's leaking? Can the cargo be lifted off the ship and placed on barges to make the ship lighter and perhaps easier to refloat?
And the big question: Who will pay for the clean-up?
The MSC Chitra and Khalijia had collided on Saturday at the mouth of the Mumbai harbour. The Khalijia had been at the harbour for over a fortnight for repair work when the collision took place.
A case has been registered against the captains and crews of both ships. The Director General of Shipping has also ordered an inquiry. (With PTI inputs)