India hunting for ship that dumped oil, which is coating famed Goa beaches with tar balls

PANAJI, India (AP) — An unknown ship dumped tons of waste oil into the sea off western India, creating tar balls that were heaping on Goa's famed beaches Wednesday, officials said.

Indian navy and coast guard vessels were trying to trace the ship that is believed to have dumped burnt oil about three days ago, said Aleixo Sequeira, the state's environment minister.

"If we are ab le to find the vessel, then action would be immediately initiated," Sequeira said. He declined to say what action would be taken.

Wave after wave of tar balls have been floating ashore at Goa beaches for two days, layering the beaches six inches (15 centimeters) deep with semisolid oil lumps. Popular beaches such as Colva, Candolim and Calangute were badly hit.

On Wednesday, scores of civic workers used brooms to collect and clear the oily debris, but still more tar balls were washing ashore, said Swapnil Naik, Goa's top tourism official.

The beaches are not closed, but few visitors are there since tourism season begins in October.

Ships regularly clean tanks and discharge the waste oil at sea, but this case involved careless dumping that exceeded all proportions, say scientists at India's National Institute of Oceanography, located in Goa.

"Crude oil mixes with water to form an emulsion that looks like chocolate pudding. Winds and waves continue to stretch and tear the oil patches into smaller pieces, or tar balls," said S. R. Shetye, who heads the institute.

Goa's tourism industry is worried that news of the pollution could put off visitors to one of the most sought after and cheap beach destinations in India. Nearly 2.5 million tourists visit annually, including half a million foreigners, mostly from the U.K., Israel and Russia.

"This should not have happened. It will not be good for tourism in Goa," said Gaurish Dhond, president of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa.

The tourist season in Goa lasts until March.