23 years after one of history's worst oil spills, Exxon Valdez 'rests' in Gujarat

Exxon Valdez
The ship responsible for one of history's worst environment disasters -- the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska – rumbled on to the tide-flooded Alang ship recycling yard in Gujarat at exactly 4 pm on Thursday, never to sail again.  

Neatly positioned behind two, orange-coloured chemical tankers a third each of it's size, the vessel dropped anchor five minutes later and cut it's engine within another five.

As the high tide dropped back sometime afterwards, it's 15-member crew walked ashore after three days short of four months since they boarded the vessel on it's uncertain last voyage.

The ill-fated vessel, however, almost maintained it's luck till the end.

Originally scheduled to beach on Wednesday afternoon, it was postponed because the ship's anchor got stuck in the mud just two nautical miles offshore, where it was stationed the previous evening.

The 228 m long, 34,399 ton (without cargo) ship was reserved a spot between the 10,000 ton chemical-tankers that had already been cut open, a common sight at Asia's largest graveyard for vessels, but could not occupy it as scheduled.

A shore pilot instructed Lobo Menville, to maintain the anchorage position for a second try 24 hours later and pick up it's anchor at 11.30 am Thursday, readying itself to beach.

Anchor was lifted at 9 am on Thursday, however, and by 11 am, strong currents in the Gulf of Khambat had taken the vessel six nautical miles north - thus began four gruelling hours of navigation towards the plot once more.

By noon, though, the mood was upbeat - second captain Samir Basul, who boarded with the crew on April 4 and meanwhile missed his infant daughter's birthday, wrote on his facebook status: "Weather superfine; anchor's up and v r drifting in area, high tide at 4 pm, shall be home tomorrow. Thanks everybody."

By 3 pm, captain Menville radioed the shore captain, asking how the anchor should be dropped - the vessel was to start to toward shore soon.

More than 23 years earlier on March 24, 1989, captain Menville's predecessor Joseph Hazelwood radioed the US Coast Guard just after midnight and told them the oil-tanker could not move – the ship had run aground and spilled it's cargo.

Estimated to be about 2.5 lakh barrels, the oil-spill eventually covered almost 26,000 sq kms of open ocean and 2,414 kms of shoreline, drenching in oil 18 environmentally sensitive areas and killing more than two lakh wild creatures including sea-birds, otters, seals, bald eagles and killer whales, the Christian Science Monitor reported on its 10th anniversary. 

Now 27-years-old, the 34,399 ton, 288 m long vessel has changed names at least seven times and hoisted at least four flags (US, Marshall Islands, Panama and Sierra Leone).

It was converted into an ore carrier in September 2008, and is currently known as the M V Oriental N.

It has had a long wait to die at Alang.

Newspapers in the west heralded it's last voyage months ago and, in early May, Delhi-based environmental activist Gopal Krishna filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking MV Oriental N's entry be stopped and an international convention called the Basel Convention be upheld. 

On May 7, the court halted the vessel's approach, and authorities with jurisdiction over the yard postponed granting permission.

Later, a vacation bench of the SC ruled likewise. 

All the while, it's current owners – Best Oasis, a Hong Kong-based subsidiary of Priya Blue Industries, headed by Sanjay Mehta – argued there was no hazardous material on-board. (Sources close to the developments the three-month wait may have cost Mehta up to Rs.36 crores.)

The ship floated somewhere off Mumbai until June 25, when the Central Government told the SC that the Gujarat Maritime Board, the nodal agency over Alang, can decide the ship's fate.

Three days later, the GMB granted the ship permission to anchor.. 

On June 30, it anchored about six nautical miles from the Bhavnagar shore, north of a small, uninhabited island owned by the erstwhile Maharaja of Bhavnagar. 

More than a dozen government officials climbed on-board and by evening, inspections revealed the ship was clean and there was no reason beaching should not be allowed. 

Exactly a month later, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court judged; "We... direct the concerned authorities to allow the ship in question to beach and to permit the ship owner to proceed with the dismantling of the ship..." 

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