Mauritius oil spill – Race against time as ship could break in HALF spilling another 4,000 tonnes into Indian Ocean

THOUSANDS of people are battling to save the Mauritius coastline as a stricken ship could split in half and spew another 4,000 tonnes of toxic fuel into the Indian Ocean.

MV Wakashio’s captain and sailors have ended their 14-day coronavirus quarantine, and are now being interrogated by cops about running aground on a coral reef, says reports.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said: “The boat can still break in two. 

“The cracks have developed. The situation is even more serious.”

He also told reporters: “Arrangements have been made so that the part which is already underwater is towed in case of breakage. 

“The part still out of the water must be stabilised because it is this which contains the bulk of the heavy oil load of the ship.”

Environmental expert Sunil Dowarkasin, who is helping the clean-up, warned: "We will never be able to recover from this damage. But what we can do is try to mitigate as much as we can,” reports CBS News.

Mauritius has declared a state of environmental emergency after the Japanese tanker leaked 1,000 tonnes of fuel into the Indian Ocean, devastating wildlife and pristine beaches.

Shocking satellite images show a dark slick oozing through the turquoise waters near environmentally sensitive areas after Wakashio struck a coral reef off the island nation on July 25.

As the deadly slick closed in, anxious locals stuffed sacks with leaves and created makeshift straw barriers to protect the famous honeymoon resort.

Thousands of students, environmental activists and Mauritius residents were working around the clock on Sunday, trying to reduce damage to the islands, that lie east of Madagascar.

It’s a tough task as they were mopping up the thick, sticky black gunge during high winds and rough seas – as reports came in of new cracks to the ship’s hull.

Photos of the determined volunteers show them covered in sludge.

Radio One in Mauritius reported that Wakashio's captain and sailors will be quizzed on why they chose this particular route – given the delicate coastal environment used by 340 species of fish – after leaving China for Brazil.

The tanker struck a reef at Pointe d'Esny, which is an ecologically fragile area with internationally recognised wetlands.

The volcanic main island of Mauritius is ringed by coral reefs.

Mauritian officials have a search warrant, and a raid by agents from the Central Criminal Investigation Department (CCID) is imminent, the station added.

PM Pravind Jugnauth said the spill “represents a danger” for the livelihoods of some 1.3 million people.

The islands rely heavily on tourism and have been been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Marine-protected areas in Mauritius cover 28 square miles (7,190 hectares), including six fishing reserves and two marine parks.

Jugnauth told journalists that the boat's documents and black boxes have been recovered, reports Le Xpress from Mauritius.

France revealed it is now sending specialist help from its nearby Reunion Island. Equipment is also being sent from Greece to help the clean-up operation.

The Mauritius government "is taking all necessary actions so as to contain the oil spill from the MV Wakashio and some 400 sea booms have been deployed to secure the sensitive areas," said Environment Minister Kavydass Ramano.

The vessel has grounded in a very sensitive zone which includes the Blue Bay Marine Park, Iles aux Aigrettes, and the Ramsar sites.

The operator of the Japanese bulk carrier apologised on Sunday.

Japan is sending a six-person disaster relief team, on the request of the Mauritius government, to help with removing the spilt oil, according to a statement by the Japanese Foreign Ministry on Sunday.

“We apologise profusely and deeply for the great trouble we have caused,” Akihiko Ono, executive vice president of Mitsui OSK Lines said at a news conference in Tokyo.

He added that the company would “do everything in their power to resolve the issue”.

Mauritius says the ship was carrying nearly 4,000 tonnes of fuel when it became stuck.

Wildlife volunteers ferried dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants from an island near the area of spill – Ile aux Aigrettes – to the mainland.

Locals and environmentalists are now asking why the authorities didn't act more quickly after the ship ran aground more than two weeks ago.

Fears are now growing that the worsening weather could tear the Japanese-owned ship apart along its cracked hull.

France said a military transport aircraft was carrying pollution control equipment to Mauritius and a navy vessel with additional material is to set sail for the island.

"When biodiversity is in peril, there is urgency to act," French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on Saturday.

Some 500 tonnes of oil have been salvaged from the ship, but thousands of tonnes remain, presenting a massive threat to the area's marine life and the tourism industry dependent upon it.

The tanker was carrying both diesel and bunker fuel – which is used by maritime vessels.

Cracks in the hull were detected a few days ago and the salvage team was quickly evacuated.

Le Xpress reports that the smell of fuel oil is so overwhelming that it has terrified Intendant Laval Bangard, 70, who was born on the island.

The fisherman told the publication that he had never seen an ecological disaster of this magnitude in his life.

Some 400 sea booms were deployed to contain the spill, but they were not enough.

"Our country doesn't have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships," the PM admitted on Friday.

Environment Minister Kavydass Ramano said a salvage team of 11 members were working to secure and stabilise the ship – but had to be evacuated due to the cracks in the ship hull.

A technical team is assessing the situation and has a technical plan to start pumping out the fuel at the earliest opportunity, he added. 

"Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and I worry what could happen Sunday when the weather deteriorates," he said.

Heavy winds are expected to push the oil slick even farther along the mainland's shore.

Worried ex-MP Sunil Dowarkasing, an environmental consultant, said: “This is no longer a threat to our environment.

“It is a full-blown ecological disaster that has affected one of the most environmentally important parts of Mauritius, the Mahebourg Lagoon.”

The lagoon is a protected area, created several years ago to preserve an area in Mauritius as it was 200 years ago.

“The people of Mauritius – thousands and thousands – have come out to try to prevent as much damage as possible,” added Dowarkasing.

He said people have created long floating oil booms to try to slow the spread into the lagoon and onto the coast.

The hastily made fabric booms are stuffed with sugar cane leaves and straw and kept afloat with plastic bottles, he explained.

People are also using empty oil drums to scoop up as much oil as possible from shallower waters.

“We are working flat out. It’s a major challenge, because the oil is not only floating in the lagoon, it’s already washing up on the shore.

“The booms are really working in many spots,” said Dowarkasing.

The Mauritius oil spill is so big that it can be seen from space.

Satellite images captured by space tech operated by Maxar Technologies show how plumes of black oil are taking over the ocean.

Greenpeace Africa warned that hundreds of tonnes of diesel and oil has leaked into the water.

Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe dEsny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, said Greenpeace's climate and energy manager, Happy Khambule.

The country also has appealed to the United Nations for urgent aid, including experts in containing oil spills and environmental protection.

A police inquiry has been opened into possible negligence, the government said.

Neither Mitsui OSK Lines nor Nagashiki Shipping, the ship's owner, could confirm the cost of damages from the oil spill.


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