Mauritius declares environmental emergency after massive oil spill from ship

A ‘state of environmental emergency’ has been declared in Mauritius after a ship that ran aground two weeks ago started spilling huge amounts of fuel.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth appealed for help as satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near areas that the government called ‘very sensitive’.

The ship, which is Japanese-owned, was reportedly carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel and cracks have since appeared in its hull.

Mr Jugnauth said the spill ‘represents a danger’ for the island in the Indian Ocean, which has a population of 1.3 million people and relies heavily on tourism.

The country, off the east coast of Africa, has already been been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

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‘Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships, so I have appealed for help from France and President Emmanuel Macron,’ said Mr Jugnauth.

‘Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and I worry what could happen [on] Sunday when the weather deteriorates.’

According to the Mauritius Meteorological Services, from Sunday ‘ventures in the open seas are not advised’ as the sea will be rough.

Footage posted online showed oily water lapping at the shore as people murmured and peered at the ship in the distance.

Online ship trackers showed the Panama-flagged bulk carrier, called the MV Wakashio, had been en route from China to Brazil.

The French island of Reunion is the closest neighbour to Mauritius, and France’s Foreign Ministry said France is Mauritius’s ‘leading foreign investor’ and one of its largest trading partners.

‘We are in a situation of environmental crisis,’ Mauritius environment minister Kavy Ramano said, calling the Blue Bay Marine Park and other areas near the leaking ship ‘very sensitive’.

After the cracks in the hull were detected, a salvage team that had been working on the ship was evacuated, Mr Ramano told reporters on Thursday.

Some 400 sea booms have been deployed in an effort to contain the spill.

Government statements this week said the ship ran aground on July 25 and 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.

Tons of diesel and oil are now leaking into the water, environmental group Greenpeace Africa’s climate and energy manager Happy Khambule said in a statement.

‘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,’ he said.

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.

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