Ship leaks more oil off Mauritius as calls for answers grow

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius: A fresh streak of oil spilled Friday (Aug 14) from a ship stranded on a reef in pristine waters off Mauritius, threatening further ecological devastation as demands mount for answers as to why the vessel had come so close to shore.

The Japanese-owned MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef on Jul 25 and a week later began leaking over 1,000 tonnes of oil into a protected marine park boasting mangrove forests and endangered species.

Mauritius declared an unprecedented environmental emergency last week.

France and Japan have responded to the Indian Ocean island’s call for help, along with thousands of Mauritians who volunteered day and night to clean sludge from powder-blue waters that have long been a favourite among honeymooners and tourists.

A general view shows the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panaman
A general view shows the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that ran aground on a reef, at Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, August 10, 2020. REUTERS/Dev Ramkhelawon/L’Express Maurice

Salvage crews raced against the clock, with the boat threatening to split in two, to pump almost 3,000 tonnes of remaining fuel off the boat.

While the boat’s reservoirs were successfully emptied on Wednesday, preventing further devastation, some of the remaining 100 tonnes of oil from the cargo hold began to leak on Friday, according to a statement from the national crisis committee on the disaster.

“According to experts this kind of leakage was expected and is due to the bending and twisting of the vessel,” said the statement.

Fisherman Alain Francois said earlier Friday that “the water has again turned black” around the ship.

The crisis committee statement said additional booms and equipment had been deployed to contain the spill, and would be joined by a new skimmer vessel soon.

So far more than 700 tonnes of oil liquid waste and 260 tonnes of solid waste sludge and debris has been removed from the ocean.

A general view shows the leaked oil from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese
A general view shows the leaked oil from the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that ran aground on a reef, at Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, August 10, 2020. REUTERS/Dev Ramkhelawon/L’Express Maurice

Volunteers have been asked to stop deploying homemade “booms” stuffed with straw and hair until a structured clean-up plan supervised by experts is formed.

“The aim is to ensure a scientific approach for a prompt rehabilitation of our ecosystem,” read the statement.

The spill is an ecological and economic disaster for Mauritius, which relies heavily on tourism.

The government has come under fire for doing too little in the week after the ship ran aground, while experts from the Japanese Nagashiki shipping company, which owns the Wakashio, took three weeks to arrive.

“UNANSWERED QUESTIONS”

Greenpeace wrote a scathing letter to the ship’s owners, saying: “many unanswered questions remain. Why was your vessel sailing so dangerously close to the reef? Why have you done so little since the ship ran aground? What will you do to reduce the damage to the environment, and the pain and suffering of those whose livelihoods depend on it?”

A general view shows the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, that ran aground on a reef, at Riviere des
A general view shows the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, that ran aground on a reef, at Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, in this handout image obtained by Reuters on August 11, 2020. French Army command/Handout via REUTERS

The ship’s owner has meanwhile pledged to “sincerely” respond to requests for compensation over damage to the marine environment.

“We are deeply conscious of our responsibility as a party directly involved in the case,” said Kiyoaki Nagashiki, president of Nagashiki Shipping.

“Regarding compensation, we plan to deal with the issue sincerely based on applicable laws,” the head of the Okayama-based company said in a statement.

“We will continue to do our utmost to collect the leaked oil and to minimise the impact of the environmental pollution,” he added.

Salvage crews are racing round the clock to clean sludge
Salvage crews are racing round the clock to clean sludge AFP/Handout

In an interview with AFP on Thursday Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said a probe into events surrounding the disaster was still ongoing.

“The investigation will be able to determine the causes of this accident, the reasons why the boat came so close to our shores and ran aground,” Jugnauth said.

“And of course, a general mobilisation at all levels will continue cleaning up and making sure that the oil can be removed from the sea.”