JOHANNESBURG – Work began Monday to remove the two pieces of a grounded Japanese ship that leaked tons of oil into the protected coast of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius and broke apart.
Tug boats will pull the bow — the smaller part of the shipwrecked MV Wakashio — out to sea and allow it to sink, according to environmental experts on the island. The larger part of the ship will be dragged off the coral reef where it ran aground and towed away, possibly to India for salvage.
“When the ship split in two, there was further leakage of oil, but it appears most of that fuel was on the other side of the coral reef and was in the high seas,” Sunil Dowarkasing, an environmental consultant and former parliament member in Mauritius. “With the sea currents, we don't know if the new leakage will stay outside the lagoon or not.”
Oil barriers were in place and a skimmer ship to scoop up the fuel was nearby.
The Mauritius government has closed off the coastal area of the eastern part of the island, where thousands of civilian volunteers worked for days to try to minimize damage to the Mahebourg lagoon and protected marine wetlands polluted by the spilled fuel.
Only officials and hired workers are permitted to work in the coastal area and the waters surrounding the grounded ship.
Experts from France, Japan and the United Nations are also involved in the clean-up work.
“Now, we must rely on the government as our only source of information about the situation, so we are only getting one side of the story,” Dowarkasing said.
“We know that the damage to the area is substantial,” he told The Associated Press. “The mangroves are heavily impacted by the fuel. The extent of the damage to the coral reefs will only be known much later, but it is expected to be serious.”
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. Development Program has allocated $200,000 to address the immediate impact of the spill.
The International Maritime Organization, the U.N. Environment Program and the U.N. humanitarian office have deployed an oil spill expert to support the government, Dujarric said. And U.N. agencies are also supporting the public health response, assessing the risks to communities, providing forensic investigation and legal support, and using U.N. satellite imagery and analysis to help with remote mapping.
The Wakasio ran aground a coral reef on July 25. After being pounded by heavy waves, the vessel cracked and it starting leaking oil on August 6. The damaged ship spilled more than 1,000 tons of its cargo of 4,000 tons of fuel into the turquoise waters of the Mahebourg Lagoon, one of the island's most pristine coastal areas.
Most of the remaining 3,000 tons of fuel had been pumped off the ship in the past week as environmental groups warned that the damage to coral reefs could be irreversible.
The Mauritius government is under pressure to explain why immediate action wasn’t taken to empty the ship of its fuel before it began to leak. Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth earlier blamed bad weather for the slow response.
Owner Nagashiki Shipping has said “residual” amounts of fuel remained on the ship after pumping. It is investigating why the ship went off course. The ship was meant to stay at least 10 miles (16 kilometers) from shore. The company has sent experts to help clean up the damage.
The Mauritius government is seeking compensation from the company.
After the government declared an environmental emergency, thousands of volunteers rushed to the shore to create makeshift oil barriers from tunnels of fabric stuffed with sugar cane leaves and even human hair, with empty plastic bottles tucked in to keep them afloat.
The island nation of some 1.3 million people relies heavily on tourism and already had taken a severe hit due to travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.