Catastrophic Fire Causes Iranian Oil Tanker To Sink In Chinese Waters

Controlled burns deplete oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. U.S. Coast Guard

An oil tanker carrying approximately 1 million barrels of oil sank off the coast of Shanghai on Tuesday, undoubtedly marking the beginning of a pollution crisis in the East China Sea.

The incident is also a human tragedy, as all 32 sailors onboard perished.


The disaster began on January 6th, when the Iranian vessel, dubbed the Sanchi, collided with a cargo ship along its route to South Korea. According to the Chinese transport ministry, the Sanchi burst into intense flames soon after, creating a column of smoke 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) high. See photos here.

Chinese officials apparently struggled to organize the emergency response, leading to confusion about whether rescue attempts or fire-fighting measures were top priority. Critics have since argued that they should have focused on putting out the fire because the crew likely died quickly.

“There is no hope of finding survivors among the members of the crew,” Mohammad Rastad, a spokesman for the Iranian rescue told Iran’s state broadcaster in Tehran before the tanker went down. “Despite our efforts, it has not been possible to extinguish the fire and recover the bodies due to repeated explosions and gas leaks."

Other experts have been quoted saying that the Sanchi should have been bombed with torpedoes immediately to burn off the remaining oil within. Instead, the boat sank in 100-meter (328-feet) deep water near the Zhoushan Islands, an outcome marine ecologist Chen Shang called the “worst-case scenario” when speaking with Caixin magazine, because the fuel will now leak uncontrollably into the surrounding marine ecosystem – a highly productive area that hosts populations of tuna, shrimp, and other species relied upon by local small-scale and industrial fishing operations. 


As we’ve seen with other large disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill or the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the full environmental impact of this event will likely take years to assess. The Sanchi was carrying condensate oil, a colorless, partially hydrophilic liquid that is highly toxic to aquatic (and terrestrial) animals and is extremely difficult to remove from water. The biological repercussions of petroleum oil exposure unfold over time. There are immediate, devastating effects as well as insidious long-term ones.

Skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. NOAA Office of Response and Restoration/Flickr

For example, nearly eight years after the Deepwater Horizon spill flooded the Gulf of Mexico with 4.9 million barrels of crude oil and dispersant, scientists continue to quantify how screwed deep-sea corals are.

Since the Sanchi contained nearly a quarter of the amount of oil that Deepwater horizon released, continued bad news is in the forecast.

China’s State Oceanic Administration reported that the two oil slicks produced by the catastrophe have already grown in size; they’re estimated at 134 square kilometers (52 square miles), compared with just 10 square kilometers (4 square miles) on Monday.


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