An oil tanker exploded off the southwest coast of Japan on Thursday morning at around 9.20am Japanese time. The explosion caused a massive fire, sending great plumes of smoke into the sky. Of the crew of eight, four have been hospitalized for severe burns, while the ship’s 64-year-old captain remains unaccounted for.

The tanker, named the Shoko-Maru, had recently unloaded its 1,000-ton cargo of crude oil and was anchored some 450km west of Tokyo, near Hyogo prefecture, when the explosion occurred. An official at Syoho Shipping, the Hiroshima company that owns the oil tanker, told AFP that the explosion may have been caused by a crewmember removing paint with a grinder, which could have ignited residual oil leftover from the recent shipment.

According to the Japanese coastguard, the ship’s 61-year-old boatswain suffered burns over his entire body. The coastguard also said that they were searching for the captain in the waters around the ship.

Jagged shards of metal appeared to show where the tanker had exploded, with large sections peeled back as if they had been jimmied by a giant can opener.

Coastguard officials said they had raced to the scene after hearing that the Shoko-Maru had exploded.

—AFP

Screencapture from NHK report

After the coastguard doused the flames in order to extinguish the blaze, the oil tanker eventually sank. Footage of the fire can be seen on the Guardian website and on NHK.

Though not as massive a disaster as this month’s coal mining accident in Turkey, in which over 300 perished, some international attention has focused on the dangers of fossil fuel extraction and transportation in the wake of the tanker explosion. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, a decision to extend an oil pipeline is about to be made. If the pipeline is to be expanded, the amount of oil tankers shipping from the area is set to nearly double — from 220 to 403 per year.

Kai Nagata, a spokesperson for the Vancouver-based environmental activist group the Dogwood Initiative, was thankful that the Shoko-Maru was not loaded with crude. He also linked the Japanese disaster to what could take place off Canada’s shores.

From the Vancouver Observer:

Now Kinder Morgan is asking to triple the capacity of that pipeline, which would triple the existing risk. Enbridge wants to build a whole new tanker facility in Kitimat. The majority of British Columbians are asking, ‘why should we swallow those additional risks just so pipeline companies can ship more of our oil to refineries overseas?’

The Shoko-Maru incident should serve to remind us that the price of oil is not something that simply goes up and down on the Dow Jones or Nikkei. It has a very real environmental and human cost. People are paying with their lives and the fossil fuel industry is making money by compromising the Earth’s future.

Screencapture from Guardian report