Satellite images show oil spill disaster unfolding in Mauritius: "We will never be able to recover"

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Leroy N. Soetoro

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Aug 9, 2020, 3:37:37 PM8/9/20
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Anxious residents of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius stuffed
fabric sacks with sugar cane leaves Saturday to create makeshift oil spill
barriers as tons of fuel leaking from a grounded ship put endangered
wildlife in further peril. The government has declared an environmental
emergency and France said it was sending help from its nearby Reunion
island.

Satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters
near wetlands that the government called "very sensitive."

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

Wildlife workers and volunteers ferried dozens of baby tortoises and rare
plants from an island near the spill, Ile aux Aigrettes, to the mainland
as fears grew that worsening weather on Sunday could tear the Japanese-
owned ship apart along its cracked hull.

A French statement from Reunion on Saturday said a military transport
aircraft was carrying pollution control equipment to Mauritius and a navy
vessel with additional material would set sail for the island nation.

Residents and environmentalists alike wondered why authorities didn't act
more quickly after the ship ran aground July 25 on a reef. Mauritius says
the ship, the MV Wakashio, was carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel.

"That's the big question," Jean Hugues Gardenne with the Mauritian
Wildlife Foundation told The Associated Press. "Why that ship has been
sitting for long on that coral reef and nothing being done."

This is the country's first oil spill, he said, adding that perhaps no one
expected the ship to break apart. For days, residents peered out at the
precariously tilted ship as a salvage team arrived and began to work, but
ocean waves kept battering the ship.

"They just hit and hit and hit," Gardenne said.

"All the volunteers are covered black," Sunil Dowarkasing, a former
Greenpeace strategist and environmental expert assisting in the clean-up,
told AFP from Mahebourg, one of the worst affected areas.

"We will never be able to recover from this damage. But what we can do is
try to mitigate as much as we can."

Cracks in the hull were detected a few days ago and the salvage team was
quickly evacuated. Some 400 sea booms were deployed to contain the spill,
but they were not enough.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth says the spill "represents a danger" for
the country of 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has
been been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has
restricted travel worldwide.

"Our country doesn't have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded
ships," he said Friday. Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and "I
worry what could happen Sunday when the weather deteriorates."

Heavy winds are expected to push the oil slick even farther along the
mainland's shore. A Mauritius Meteorological Services forecast for Sunday
has advised that seas will be rough with swells beyond the reefs and
"ventures in the open seas are not advised."

Videos posted online have shown oily waters lapping at the mainland, and a
man running a stick across the water's surface then lifting it, dripping
black goo. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation is working to free trapped
seabirds and turtles.

Environmental group Greenpeace Africa warned that tons of diesel and oil
are leaking into the water. It shared video showing Mauritius residents,
to chants of "One, two, three!," shoving the makeshift oil barriers into
the sea, while crowds of children and adults hurried to make more.

"Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe
d'Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with
dire consequences for Mauritius' economy, food security and health," 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.

"We are in a situation of environmental crisis," said country's
environment minister, Kavy Ramano.

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

Online ship trackers showed the Panama-flagged bulk carrier had been en
route from China to Brazil. The ship's owners are listed as the Japanese
companies Okiyo Maritime Corporation and Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd.

A statement by the Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd. said "due to the bad
weather and constant pounding over the past few days, the starboard side
bunker tank of the vessel has been breached and an amount of fuel oil has
escaped into the sea."

It added: "Nagashiki Shipping takes its environmental responsibilities
extremely seriously and will take every effort with partner agencies and
contractors to protect the marine environment and prevent further
pollution."

The Mauritius Marine Conservation Society and other local groups warned
that the cleanup could take much longer than expected.

"The great urge for all of us is to 'get on with it,'" the Mauritian
Wildlife Foundation said. "But currently we understand that it may be a
waste of time to 'clean up' an area where oil may continue to flow in."

First published on August 8, 2020 / 2:32 PM

© 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.


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