The ‘Sir Gaetan Duval’ Tug boat (seen here in Port Louis) sunk on 31 August whilst supporting the … [+] Wakashio operation and towing an oil barge carrying oil from the Japanese vessel responsible for a major oil spill.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated with the latest developments.
In an incredible new development overnight on Monday 31 August, a major operation is underway in Mauritius as a barge carrying oil from the stricken Japanese iron-ore vessel The Wakashio collided with a tug boat pulling it.
The tug boat – which had been involved in the Wakashio salvage operation – has sunk in the coral lagoon and a major operation is underway to rescue the 8 crew from the water under darkness.
There is still much confusion about the circumstances and events of the sinking.
According to reports from local media present on the scene, the Mauritius Port Authority tug boat, called the ‘Sir Gaetan Duval,’ was towing the oil barge back to the harbor capital city, Port Louis.
It had been travelling from the location of the Wakashio oil spill in Pointe d’Esny in the South East of the country, and was heading North around the island.
Both vessels appeared to be around 30 miles North of the original crash site of the Wakashio when they ran into trouble. This is around 20 miles North of where dozens of whales and dolphins had washed up dead on Mauritius’ coasts in the past few days.
According to a statement released by the Mauritian Port Authority, the oil barge was called the ‘l’Ami Constant’ and owned by Mauritian maritime services company, Taylor Smith. The statement also confirmed that the vessel was transporting oil from the Wakashio.
Satellite tracking of the ‘Sir Gaetan Duval’ boat reveal the unsteady path following the collision.
9 August 2020: image from French Defense Ministry showing 200,000 gallons of oil leaking from the … [+] Wakashio. Mauritius declared a “state of environmental emergency” after the Japanese-owned ship ran aground on 25 July.
Local officials reported that at 7.40pm on Monday 31 August, the tug boat encountered difficulties with the heavy swells and the oil barge and tug boat collided in the darkness.
Following the collision, water started coming on board the tug boat and the crew jumped into two life rafts. Due to conditions in the water at the time, the life rafts overturned.
One crew member was rescued by helicopter and transported to hospital with non-life threatening injuries. Three others were rescued over the course of the evening, with four remaining missing.
Local media are reporting at least three coastguard vessels, other tug boats, local fishermen and multiple Mauritian Government helicopters and aircraft are involved in the major rescue operation which is taking place under the cover of darkness in the North of the island.
According to the Head of the Mauritius National Coastguard, all crew had been wearing life vests at the time of the tug boat sinking.
20 days in the dark on how much oil was spilled
August 15, 2020: the large salvage operation involving many vessels attempt to pull the Wakashio off … [+] the coral reef lagoon, a day before the vessel split in two.
AFP via Getty Images
Since 11 August (20 days ago), there had been no update on the amount of oil on board the Wakashio, in the ocean or on the oil barges. Neither had the details of the fuel transfer operation been disclosed, meaning the public is not aware of how frequently the oil barge had been transporting oil back and forth between the Wakashio and the capital city, Port Louis, to give an indication whether all the oil that had been collected from the Wakashio had been spilled into the ocean or just a smaller fraction.
This lack of transparency from local authorities, the international consultants on the scene, SMIT Salvage, Le Floch Depollution, Polyeco, ITOPF and advisers from the International Maritime Organization, French Government and Japanese Government who are all involved in the massive salvage and cleanup operation, have frustrated Mauritians on the scene and internationally who had been trying to understand the gravity of the situation, and are having to rely on information out from the media. There had been many offers of help internationally that appears to have been ignored or sidelined as the salvage and clean up appeared to veer from one catastrophic response to the next.
None of the international consultants from SMIT Salvage, Le Floch Depollution, Polyeco, ITOPF have responded to questions from the media. Shipowner Nagasaki Shipping has not issued any further statements on the latest sinking of a vessel involved in the Wakashio salvage operation.
This lack of transparency has now meant there is even greater uncertainty over how much oil was on the oil barge being used to transport the fuel to the capital city.
Nature reserves and protected fishing reserves
31 August: location of tugboat and oil barge sinking, Wakashio wreck and where dead whales and … [+] dolphins had washed onto shore on Mauritius.
Mauritius Parks and Conservation Services
The location of the spill in the North of the country is close to some of Mauritius’ most famous Five Star Hotels and luxury homes. It is too early to tell whether any oil has started to spill in that direction.
It is also an area of protected mangrove forests, dolphin and whale nursing grounds around the edges of the reefs, with the highly protected coral atoll and mangrove nature reserves of Ile D’Ambre, as well as turtle nesting grounds along protected the beaches.
The location of the sinking of the tug boat, place called Poudre d’Or, is also the location of a protected fishing reserve. 15 days after the initial oil leak from the Wakashio, it was revealed that arsenic levels had risen 500% above normal levels from local fish caught in the that region.
Views from Ile d’Ambre nature reserve, Mauritius, just North of the tug boat crash site in the … [+] fishing reserve of Poudre d’Or
It has not been revealed what the impact could be on these habitats with the new leak.
The last official statement on the amount of oil pumped from the Wakashio came 20 days ago on 11 August, four days before the vessel had split in two.
11 August 2020: the last clear statement from the ship owner or local authorities on how much oil … [+] had been leaked came 20 days ago, prior to the vessel splitting in two..
Data from Nagashiki Shipping Co Ltd (Japan)
In a statement on 11 August, the Japanese ship owner said that 720 tons (202,000 gallons) had spilled into the lagoon, 1600 tons (450,000 gallons) was still on board, 1480 gallons (415,000 gallons) had been reclaimed. There was no clarity on the diesel and other chemicals being transported on the vessel to power the Wakashio, one of the largest vessels in the ocean.
Calls to clean up the global shipping industry
August 30, 2020: Pope Francis waves to worshipers as he issued a statement on the oil spill … [+] happening in Mauritius
AFP via Getty Images
This comes on the back of an intervention by The Pope over the weekend, calling for greater action to support Mauritius in the clean up operation of the largest oil spill it had ever experienced.
It also followed confirmation earlier on Monday that the number of dead whales had risen to 47 over the weekend, including a number of pregnant female and juvenile whales.
International environmental organizations have also stepped up calls to de-carbonize the shipping industry, following the rising death toll of whales and dolphins.
Following the explosion in Beirut Port at the start of the month, a major oil spill in one of Venezuela’s most protected National Parks, risks of a major oil tanker contaminating the entire Red Sea, this is just the latest case this summer alone, of a major shipping incident leading to an ecological, human, economic and political crisis.
National protests amid parliament suspension
29 August 2020: demonstrators on Saturday also called for greater independent scrutiny of the … [+] decisions being taken for the oil spill clean up
Photo: Beata Albert
Large protests of over 100,000 were held in the capital city over the weekend in protest against the lack of transparency over the cleanup operation and impact on the country. This represents around one in ten in the country, as protests also took place in front of embassies around the world.
The sinking of the tug boat came in the evening of 31 August, where earlier in the day, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth, had addressed the country in a televised address with no media present. This appearance had been criticized for focusing more on the country’s Covid-19 response than transparency on the oil spill cleanup operation. The sinking of the vessel that evening has not helped, amid this lack of transparency, has not helped.
Over the weekend, following large protests about the Wakashio oil spill and slow response, the Mauritius National Parliament was suspended for two months until 3 November 2020 in another indication that independent scrutiny of the Government’s response was being reduced.
This comes following an outcry when journalists from the country’s largest newspaper were refused entry into Prime Ministerial briefings on the Wakashio sinking.
The curse of the Wakashio?
By tomorrow morning, Mauritians may wake up to the reality that the curse of the Wakashio continues to haunt the country.
The need for independent science has never been greater as an ecological tragedy continues to spread and transform the Wakashio into a human tragedy now too.