Mauritius declares environmental emergency after oil spill; salvage crews preparing to sink Japanese-owned ship
A massive clean-up operation is underway off the coast of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius after a Japanese cargo ship ran aground on a coral reef and started leaking oil. MV Wakashio has split in two and leaked 1 000 tons of oil into the water since it ran aground on Saturday, 25 July 2020. Salvage crews were preparing to sink a Japanese-owned ship that ran aground off Mauritius, despite opposition from environmental campaigners. Almost all the fuel oil from the Japanese-owned ship that has caused a huge oil spill off the coast of Mauritius has been pumped out, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has said. The fuel has been transferred to shore by helicopter and to another ship owned by the same Japanese firm, Nagashiki Shipping. Prime Minister Jugnauth said more than 3 000 of the 4 000 tons of oil from the ship's fuel reservoirs had been pumped out. A small amount remained on board elsewhere. The MV Wakashio ran aground at Pointe d'Esny, a known sanctuary for rare wildlife. The area also contains wetlands designated as a site of international importance by the Ramsar convention on wetlands. France has sent a military aircraft with pollution-control equipment from its nearby island of Réunion, while Japan has sent a six-member team to assist the French efforts. The Mauritius coast guard and several police units are also at the site in the south-east of the island.
Mauritius declared a “state of environmental emergency” after the ship started leaking oil.
Government statements said that the National Coast Guard received no distress call. The ship’s owners were listed as the Japanese companies Okiyo Maritime Corporation and Nagashiki Shipping Co Ltd. A police inquiry has been opened into issues such as possible negligence, a government statement said. The captain of the tanker has since been arrested.
How bad is the spillage?
Local environmentalists made their own tubes with tights and hair to add to the rescue effort and some have been cleaning up the island's beaches. Their actions went against an order from the Government asking people to leave the clean-up to local authorities.
Meanwhile, two specialist companies, the London-based International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd. and France's Le Floch Dépollution, joined a cleanup effort that already includes officials from France, India, Japan, the United Nations and European Union.
Greenpeace Africa has warned that “thousands” of animal species were “at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius' economy, food security and health”.
An oceanographer and environmental engineer in Mauritius, Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, stated that local residents were now “breathing heavy vapours of oil” and there was a “mixture of sadness and anger” over the spill. One of the best immediate assessments of the spill has come via Earth observation assets.
The US analytics company Ursa Space Systems has looked at the situation using radar data from the Finnish Iceye satellites, which are especially effective at picking out oil on water.
“On 6 August 2020, we detected a spill size of roughly 3,3 square kilometres surrounding the Wakashio,” said Ursa's Paul Frey. “We released detection on 11 August 2020 for the same area showing a near 10-times increase (roughly 27 square kilometres),” he said.
The Mauritian prime minister's announcement that almost all the remaining oil from the Japanese-owned ship has been pumped out certainly comes as good news. The simple reason: the super-sensitive marine environment has now avoided suffering an oil spill three times worse than it has seen in the past few days. But, averted loss is one thing, the damage already done is another.
The fact remains that this uniquely biodiversity-rich marine ecosystem, one of the few left on Earth, has already been polluted by nearly 1 000 tons of fuel oil.
Marine biologists say that is enough for the long term consequences of the entire marine life, from coral reefs, to mangroves to endangered animals and birds. And the Mauritian economy is all about them.
Akihiko Ono, the executive vice-president of the ship's operator, Mitsui OSK Lines, has “profusely” apologised for the spill and for “the great trouble we have caused”.
He has vowed that the company would do “everything in their power to resolve the issue”.
Police in Mauritius say they have been granted a search warrant, allowing them to board the vessel take away items of interest such as the ship's log book in order to help with an investigation. The ship's captain will assist officers with their search.
Since then, volunteers have also been collecting straw from fields and filling sacks to make barriers against the oil.
A government environmental outlook released nearly a decade ago said Mauritius had a national oil spill contingency plan but equipment on hand was “adequate to deal with oil spills of less than 10 metric tonnes”.
In case of major spills, it said, assistance could be obtained from other Indian Ocean countries or from international oil spill response organisations.
Source: The Guardian and ABC News