Marine Pollution

Marine pollution can be defined as the introduction of substances to the marine environment directly or indirectly by man resulting in adverse effects such as hazards to human health, obstruction of marine activities and lowering the quality of sea water.

While the causes of marine pollution may be similar to that of general water pollution there are some very specific causes that pollute marine waters.

* The most obvious inputs of waste is through pipes directly discharging wastes into the sea. Very often municipal waste and sewage from residences and hotels in coastal towns are directly discharged into the sea.

* Pesticides and fertilizers from agriculture which are washed off the land by rain, enter water courses and eventually reach the sea.

* Petroleum and oils washed off from the roads normally enter the sewage system but storm water overflows carry these materials into rivers and eventually into the seas.

* Ships carry many toxic substances such as oil, liquefied natural gas, pesticides, industrial chemicals, etc. in huge quantities sometimes to the capacity of 350,000 tonnes. Ship accidents and accidental spillages at sea therefore can be very damaging to the marine environment. Shipping channels in estuaries and at the entrances to ports often require frequent dredging to keep them open. This dredged material that may contain heavy metals and other contaminants are often dumped out to sea.

* Offshore oil exploration and extraction also pollute the seawater to a large extent.

Pollution due to organic wastes:The amount of oxygen dissolved in the water is vital for the plants and animals living in it. Wastes, which directly or indirectly affect the oxygen concentration, play an important role in determining the quality of the water. Normally the greatest volume of waste discharged to watercourses, estuaries and the sea is sewage, which is primarily organic in nature and is degraded by bacterial activity. Using the oxygen present in the water these wastes are broken down into stable inorganic compounds. However as a result of this bacterial activity the oxygen concentration in the water is reduced. When the oxygen concentration falls below 1.5 mg/lit, the rate of aerobic oxidation is reduced and their place is taken over by the anaerobic bacteria that can oxidize the organic molecules without the use of oxygen. This results in end products such as hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and methane, which are toxic to many organisms. This process results in the formation of an anoxic zone which is low in its oxygen content from which most life disappears except for anaerobic bacteria, fungi, yeasts and some protozoa. This makes the water foul smelling.

Control measures: One way of reducing the pollution load on marine waters is through the introduction of sewage treatment plants. This will reduce the biological oxygen demand (BOD) of the final product before it is discharged to the receiving waters. Various stages of treatment such as primary, secondary or advanced can be used depending on the quality of the effluent that is required to be treated.

Primary treatment: These treatment plants use physical processes such as screening and sedimentation to remove pollutants that will settle, float or, that are too large to pass through simple screening devices. This includes, stones, sticks, rags, and all such material that can clog pipes. A screen consists of parallel bars spaced 2 to 7cms apart followed by a wire mesh with smaller openings. One way of avoiding the problem of disposal of materials collected on the screens is to use a device called a comminuter which grinds the coarse material into small pieces that can then be left in the waste water. After screening the wastewater passes into a grit chamber. The detention time is chosen to be long enough to allow lighter, organic material to settle. From the grit chamber the sewage passes into a primary settling tank (also called as sedimentation tank) where the flow speed is reduced sufficiently to allow most of the suspended solids to settle out by gravity. If the waste is to undergo only primary treatment it is then chlorinated to destroy bacteria and control odours after which the effluent is released. Primary treatment nor- mally removes about 35 percent of the BOD and 60 percent of the suspended solids.

Secondary treatment: The main objective of secondary treatment is to remove most of the BOD. There are three commonly used approaches: trickling filters, activated sludge process and oxidation ponds. Secondary treatment can remove at least 85 percent of the BOD. A trickling filter consists of a rotating distribution arm that sprays liquid wastewater over a circular bed of ‘fist size’ rocks or other coarse materials. The spaces between the rocks allow air to circulate easily so that aerobic conditions can be maintained. The individual rocks in the bed are covered with a layer of slime, which consists of bacteria, fungi, algae, etc. which degrade the waste trickling through the bed. This slime periodically slides off individual rocks and is collected at the bottom of the filter along with the treated wastewater and is then passed on to the secondary settling tank where it is removed. In the activated sludge process the sewage is pumped into a large tank and mixed for several hours with bacteria rich sludge and air bubbles to facilitate degradation by micro organisms. The water then goes into a sedimentation tank  where most of the microorganisms settle out as sludge. This sludge is then broken down in an anaerobic digester where methane-forming bacteria slowly convert the organic matter into carbon dioxide, methane and other stable end products. The gas produced in the digester is 60 percent methane, which is a valuable fuel and can be put to many uses within the treatment plant itself. The digested sludge, which is still liquid, is normally pumped out onto sludge drying beds where evaporation and seepage remove the water. This dried sludge is potentially a good source of manure. Activated sludge tanks use less land area than trickling filters with equivalent performance. They are also less expensive to construct than trickling filters and have fewer problems with flies and odour and can also achieve higher rates of BOD removal. Thus although the operating costs are a little higher due to the expenses incurred on energy for running pumps and blowers they are preferred over trickling filters. Oxidation ponds are large shallow ponds approximately 1 to 2 metres deep where raw or partially treated sewage is decomposed by microorganisms. They are easy to build and manage and accommodate large fluctuations in flow and can provide treatment at a much lower cost. They however require a large amount of land and hence can be used where land is not a limitation.

Advanced sewage treatment: This involves a series of chemical and physical process that removes specific pollutants left in the water after primary and secondary treatment. Sewage treatment plant effluents contain nitrates and phosphates in large amounts. These contribute to eutrophication. Thus advanced treatment plants are designed to specifically remove these contaminants. Advanced treatment plants are very expensive to build and operate and hence are rarely used.

Pollution due to oil: Oil pollution of the sea normally attracts the greatest attention because of its visibility. There are several sources though which the oil can reach the sea.

Tanker operations :Half the world production of crude oil which is close to three billion tones a year is transported by sea. After a tanker has unloaded its cargo of oil it has to take on seawater as ballast for the return journey. This ballast water is stored in the cargo compartments that previously contained the oil. During the unloading of the cargo a certain amount of oil remains clinging to the walls of the container and this may amount to 800 tonnes in a 200,000 tonne tanker. The ballast water thus becomes contaminated with this oil. When a fresh cargo of oil is to be loaded, these compartments are cleaned with water, which discharges the dirty ballast along with the oil into the sea. Two techniques have substantially reduced this oil pollution. In the load-on-top system, the compartments are cleaned by high pressure jets of water. The oily water is retained in the compartment until the oil floats to the top. The water underneath that contains only a little oil is then discharged into the sea and the oil is transferred to a slop tank. At the loading terminal, fresh oil is loaded on top of the oil in the tank and hence the name of the technique. In the second method called ‘crude oil washing’, the clingage is removed by jets of crude oil while the cargo is being unloaded. Some modern tankers have segregated ballast where the ballast water does not come in contact with the oil. Thus with the introduction of these new methods of deballasting, the amount of oil entering the sea has been considerably reduced.

Dry docking :All ships need periodic dry docking for servicing, repairs, cleaning the hull, etc. During this period when the cargo compartments are to completely emptied, residual oil finds its way into the sea.

Bilge and fuel oils As ballast tanks take up valuable space, additional ballast is sometimes carried in empty fuel tanks. While being pumped overboard it carries oil into the sea. Individually the quantity of oil released may be small but it becomes a considerable amount when all the shipping operations are taken into consideration.
Tanker accidents :A large number of oil tanker accidents happen every year. Sometimes this can result in major disasters such as that of the Exxon Valdez described in the section on water pollution.

Offshore oil production Oil that is extracted from the seabed contains some water. Even after it is passed through oil separators the water that is discharged contains some oil, which adds to marine pollution. Drilling muds which are pumped down oil wells when it is being drilled normally contain 70 to 80 percent of oil. They are dumped on the seabed beneath the platform thus heavily contaminating the water. Uncontrolled release of oil from the wells can be catastrophic events resulting in oil pollution. Control measures for oil pollution: Cleaning oil from surface waters and contaminated beaches is a time consuming labour intensive process. The natural process of emulsification of oil in the water can be accelerated through the use of chemical dispersants which can be sprayed on the oil. A variety of slick-lickers in which a continuous belt of absorbent material dips through the oil slick and is passed through rollers to extract the oil have been designed. Rocks, harbour walls can be cleaned with high- pressure steam or dispersants after which the surface must be hosed down.

Effects of marine pollution: Apart from causing eutrophication a large amount of organic wastes can also result in the development of red tides. These are phytoplankton blooms of such intensity that the area is discolored. Many important commercially important marine species are also killed due to clogging of gills or other structures. When liquid oil is spilled on the sea it spreads over the surface of the water to form a thin film called an oil slick. The rate of spreading and the thickness of the film depends on the sea temperature and the nature of the oil. Oil slicks damage marine life to a large extent. Salt marshes, mangrove swamps are likely to trap oil and the plants, which form the basis for these ecosystems thus suffer. For salt marsh plants, oil slicks can affect the flowering, fruiting and germination. If liquid oil contaminates a bird’s plumage its water repellent properties are lost. Water thus penetrates the plumage and displaces the air trapped between the feathers and the skin. This air layer is necessary as it provides buoyancy and thermal insulation. With this loss the plumage becomes water logged and the birds may sink and drown. Even if this does not happen loss of thermal insulation results in exhaustion of food reserves in an attempt to maintain body temperature often followed by death. Birds often clean their plumage by preening and in the process consume oil which depending on its toxicity can lead to intestinal, renal or liver failure. Drill cuttings dumped on the seabed create anoxic conditions and result in the production of toxic sulphides in the bottom sediment thus eliminating the benthic fauna.

Fish and shellfish production facilities can also be affected by oil slicks. The most important commercial damage can however also come from tainting which imparts an unpleasant flavour to fish and seafood and is detectable at extremely low levels of contamination. This reduces the market value of seafood.

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