Mauritius oil disaster: Race to drain stricken ship before it splits in half

Fuel is leaking out of the Japanese ship MV Wakashio

Environmentalists in Mauritius, an island country in the Indian Ocean, say they are “expecting the worst” in a race to drain an estimated 2,500 tons of oil from a stricken Japanese ship before it breaks in half and further pollutes the sea.

The MV Wakashio, which ran aground on a coral reef two weeks ago near the island nation off the eastern coast of Africa, already has leaked more than 1,000 tons of fuel, according to the Associated Press. High winds and waves are now pounding the stranded vessel as it is showing signs of splitting apart.

“The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne warned. "So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton.”

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“We are expecting the worst,” he added.

This photo provided by the French Defense Ministry shows oil leaking from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius, on Sunday.

This photo provided by the French Defense Ministry shows oil leaking from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius, on Sunday. (EMAE via AP)

French experts have arrived from the nearby island of Reunion and are deploying floating barriers to try to contain any new oil spill, Gardenne said. France sent a navy ship, military aircraft and technical advisers after Mauritius appealed for international help Friday, while Japan said it would send a six-member expert team to assist.

Efforts are also underway to get other ships close enough to pump large amounts of oil out of the MV Wakashio.

“The danger of the ship breaking into two is increasing hour by hour,” environmental consultant Sunil Dowarkasing, a former member of parliament in Mauritius, told the Associated Press. “The cracks have now reached the base of the ship and there is still a lot of fuel on the ship.”

The ship ran aground on July 25 but work to remove the oil it was carrying only started last week when the hull cracked and started emptying the fuel into the sea, according to Dowarkasing.

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The MV Wakashio's owner, Nagashiki Shipping, said Monday that two ships have arrived at the scene to pump oil from the endangered vessel.

Oil is seen polluting the shores of the public beach in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, on Saturday. (Sophie Seneque via AP)

Oil is seen polluting the shores of the public beach in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, on Saturday. (Sophie Seneque via AP)

“A hose connection has been successfully established ... and the transfer of fuel oil is underway,” the company said in a statement. Nagashiki Shipping added that it’s working with Mauritian authorities “to mitigate the spill” and that “the primary focus at this time is ... protecting the environment.”

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Temporary floating barriers are being used in hopes of containing the spill.

Temporary floating barriers are being used in hopes of containing the spill. (Sophie Seneque via AP)

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the government of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth to explain why it did not take immediate action to avert the environmental disaster. Jugnauth has declared the oil spill a national emergency, but some residents say he acted too late.

The opposition and activists are calling for the resignation of the environment and fisheries ministers. Volunteers have ignored a government order to leave the clean-up operation to local officials.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.