The oil tanker MV Sanchi will cause a spill three times the size of the 1987 Exxon Valdez disaster if it explodes, sinks, and releases its entire cargo of about a million barrels (136,000 tons) into the East China Sea, China’s biggest fishing ground, the Washington Post reports.
Although the cargo isn’t exactly the same, the incident has Vancouver-based Coast Protectors pointing to the Sanchi as an example of what British Columbia can expect unless Kinder Morgan’s controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is stopped. “Kinder Morgan’s new tar sands pipeline will increase Puget Sound tanker traffic by 700%,” the organization states, in a Facebook post that features video of the stricken ship. “This burning oil tanker in the East China Sea proves that’s a bad idea.”
The front section of the 10-year-old, Panama-registered ship exploded Wednesday around 1:30 PM local time, four days after it collided with a freighter and burst into flames, triggering a search for 32 missing crew members—30 Iranians, and two Bangladeshis. One of those sailors has since been found dead, CNN reports, citing China’s Ministry of Transport.
Due the explosion, “vessels at the scene have to stop putting out the fire and withdraw back to (a safe distance),” the Ministry said. “The fire extinguishing operation did not achieve the desired effect.”
With the Sanchi billowing thick, black smoke since the collision, “experts are especially worried because the ship is carrying condensate, an ultralight version of crude oil,” the Post notes. “Condensate is highly toxic and even more combustible than regular crude oil. It also is nearly colourless and odorless, which makes it difficult to detect.”
“This stuff actually kills the microbes that break the oil down,” Simon Boxall of the UK National Oceanography Centre told the BBC. “If she sinks with a lot of cargo intact, then you have a time bomb on the sea bed which will slowly release the condensate.”
If the ship doesn’t sink, toxic fumes from the condensate could “drift toward towns and cities, they could aggravate existing health conditions or lead to coughing and asthma,” the Post adds.
CNN reports Iran’s accusation that China was making no active effort to mount rescue operations or get the fire under control. The Post says rescue crews “battled beating rains, toxic gas, and 10-foot waves to get near the vessel” until the explosion forced them back.
“With a length of 900 feet (274 metres) and displacing more than 85,000 tons, the Sanchi is almost as big as the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz-class aircraft carriers,” CNN reports. “Iran’s Shana news agency reported that the Sanchi was managed by the National Iranian Tanker Company and that its cargo was worth around $60 million.”