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Schwartz: Sanchi oil spill reveals problems with international policy, media

Alex Schwartz, Opinion Editor

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A tanker spilled more than 136,000 tons of oil into the East China Sea this past January. But the effects are almost invisible, and chances are you’ve never heard of it.

The Sanchi was an Iranian tanker that collided with a cargo ship around 160 nautical miles off the coast of Shanghai on Jan. 6 earlier this year. The ship exploded, killing all 32 of its crew members, and drifted at sea in flames for about a week before sinking near Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. It’s the largest tanker spill in the nearly 30 years since the Exxon Valdez spilled 270,000 barrels of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The case of the Sanchi is different because of the type of oil it was transporting. The more memorable oil spills of our time have been heavy crude, infamous for its thick, black globs that coat the ocean’s surface. But the Sanchi was carrying light crude condensate, a highly toxic hydrocarbon compound that is virtually impossible to distinguish from water — and even harder to separate from it. These highly volatile plumes can stretch for miles and are exceedingly harmful to marine ecosystems. Not only is the Sanchi spill the largest maritime leakage of condensate to date, but it is also believed that more than 2,000 tons of bunker oil — a heavier form of fuel used to power the tanker — have leached into the ocean.

Ridding the ocean of condensate is especially difficult, as the substance is both highly flammable and difficult to see. But the Sanchi spill cleanup was plagued by institutional failure as well. China and Japan, which have disputed the area where the spill occurred, seemed hesitant to respond in fear of overstepping each other’s boundaries. But oil doesn’t care about borders; the mess now affects the exclusive economic zones of both countries.

The lack of initial response from both Japan and China brings up the problem with borders during the age of climate change. Countries are so quick to claim land and water when they see its capacity for production, but once that value decreases, it becomes a no man’s land. This isn’t just true for oil — it’s true for other environmental stressors like emissions and waste, which cause degradation beyond the borders of the countries that create them.

The spill affects key fisheries off the coasts of Japan and China. The East China Sea contains breeding grounds for squid, fish and blue crabs. Samples of fish from within five nautical miles of the wreck examined in Beijing contained traces of condensate compounds. The spill also passed through the migratory paths of marine life like humpback whales and sea turtles: One sea turtle, asphyxiated by oil, was found dead on the shore of Japan’s Amami Oshima island. Depending on currents and wind patterns, the condensate could reach as far as Tokyo, and globs of bunker oil have already been found on many of the Ryukyu Islands.

This spill is concerning — not just because we can’t see it, but because we haven’t heard much about it. Ocean stocks already plagued by overfishing will experience toxic degradation, affecting fishermen in both China and Japan. Islands, reefs and coastal areas will be littered with harmful carcinogenic chemicals. Evaporating condensate could also degrade air quality in the area. And, most frighteningly, there’s little consensus on how or when the oil can be cleaned up.

Perhaps it’s the distance that’s led to the lack of international coverage of this disaster. But there’s also something to be said about the way we conceptualize oil spills. The Sanchi oil didn’t cover adorable birds or wash up on white sandy beaches. There weren’t booms collecting globs of black crude. Because it doesn’t play into the typical narrative of physical destruction, the Sanchi has become a much more insidious environmental disaster.

The visible presence of environmental damage seems to be the most pressing reason for media to cover it and for audiences to care about it. But we need to realize that, oftentimes, the biggest problems facing our planet are ones we can’t see. Think of carbon emissions, ocean trash gyres and even the clearing of the rainforest. We as residents of a developed nation do not encounter this degradation, but someone else does. Soon, if nothing is done to stop it, no one will be unaffected by the destruction.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at alexschwartz@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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