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At least 100 000 people took part in a protest in Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius, three weeks after an oil spill caused by a cargo ship ramming into coral reefs and days after at least 40 dolphins and whales were found washed up dead on beaches. The protesters are demanding an investigation into the oil spill and mass dolphin die-off. 

The government has said that it will carry out autopsies of all the dolphins and whales and has set up a commission to investigate the spill. Two investigations are currently being carried out: one by the police on the crew’s responsibilities and one by a senior shipping ministry official on what happened to the ship. 

Vets have only examined two of the carcasses, which showed signs of injury but no trace of oil in their bodies, according to preliminary autopsy reports. The autopsies were carried out by the government-run Albion Fisheries Research Centre. The remaining autopsies’ results are expected in the coming days, according to the fisheries ministry. 

However, Fabiola Monty, an environmental scientist, says, “We do not trust the government and the diluted information they’ve been feeding us regarding the management and responses to the oil spill.” 

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Eco-Sud, a local environmental group, adds that civil society representatives should be present during the autopsies and that independent specialists should be called upon for second opinions.

Mauritian officials said in a press conference that many of the dead species that have been washing up on beaches are Melon-headed whales, which are found primarily in deep, tropical waters. 

A Japanese-owned ship crashed into a coral reef on July 25 and began leaking at least 1 000 tons of oil on August 6, staining a protected wetlands area and a small island that was a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Thousands of volunteers worked for days to minimise the damage to the coastline, on which Mauritius depends for much of its revenue, creating makeshift oil barriers. Environmental workers also ferried dozens of tortoises and rare plants to shore, rescuing trapped seabirds as they went. 

According to 9News, another protest is being planned on September 12 in Mahebourg, one of the coastal villages in Mauritius that has been most affected by the oil spill. 

On the morning of Aug.15, a wrecked ship, longer than the Titanic, broke in two in the waters of Mauritius. The Japanese-owned bulk carrier, M.V. Wakashio, had rammed into the island nation’s coral reef barrier on July 25. In the weeks since the crash, it leaked almost 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil into the sea. Mauritius has since chosen to dump the bits of wrecked ship off its coastline, prompting controversy. 

Oil-laden waves crashed on the shore, and greasy residue settled on coral reefs and slunk into the mangrove forests that clutch the eastern coast of the island. At least 30 kilometers (19 miles) of shoreline is heavily affected.

The country is still trying to mop up the oil, but another problem now looms large: what to do with the broken halves of the ship? This week the government of Mauritius floated the idea of sinking the wrecked ship 13 km (8 mi) off the east coast, in open waters 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) deep. On Aug. 17, two tugs started this operation.

The move has proved controversial.

“Out of all available options, the Mauritian government is choosing the worst one,” Happy Khambule, Greenpeace Africa senior climate and energy campaign manager, said in a statement. “Sinking this vessel would risk biodiversity and contaminate the ocean with large quantities of heavy metal toxins, threatening other areas as well, notably the French island of La Réunion.”

The French minister for overseas departments, Sébastien Lecornu, who visited Mauritius on Aug. 16, also appeared unimpressed with the plan. Sinking part of the ship in international waters “is clearly not our preferred solution,” he said at a press conference on the same day. According to reports from the National Crisis Committee, which is spearheading Mauritius’s efforts, the plan to sink the bow was validated by experts sent by France.

The plan has also run into logistical challenges. The salvage tugs that are pulling the wreck are sailing under the Maltese flag. The island nation is a party to the London Convention on marine dumping; sinking the bow in open waters would violate the treaty.

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mauritius wrecked ship
An aerial view of the wrecked MV Wakashio ship after it broke apart in the waters of Mauritius on August 15. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Africa.

An investigation is underway into the cause of the ship’s grounding. Mauritian authorities took the captain and his deputy into custody, charging them on Aug. 18 with endangering safe navigation.

Mauritian authorities are already facing heat for their handling of the crisis. The ship grounded in the vicinity of three ecologically sensitive areas: Blue Bay Marine Park, Ile aux Aigrettes, a coral island, and the Pointe D’Esny wetland, which is a Ramsar Convention-protected site.

The government’s response has been criticized as tardy. “You have a ship with 3.8K tons of oil wrecked less than a mile from your beach … close to your national marine park [Blue Bay],” wrote a Facebook user, the Logical Mauritian. “You are an island that survives on your tourism and your beaches are the lifeblood of your tourism industry. You had that ship wrecked near your lagoon for 12 days … And it is obviously clear its spilling oil in your water. What have you been doing for 12 days?”

The vessel, owned by Japanese company Nagashiki Shipping, was carrying 3,800 tons of fuel oil. The Mauritian government, with international help, pumped out most of the remaining oil from the ship before it broke apart.

In the immediate aftermath of the oil spill, local communities appeared to be taking the lead in cleanup efforts. Fishers, fishmongers, boat operators, and volunteers from civil society organizations have been working to remove the oily sludge, solid waste and contaminated debris washing up on the shore.

More than 10 km (6 mi) of oil booms, floating barriers made from PVC that prevent the oil slick from spreading, were deployed by the authorities. In addition, makeshift booms were made from human hair, sugarcane straw packed into sacks, and leggings, all to help soak up the oil.

Almost 900 tons of oily sludge, oil mixed with debris, has been recovered from 14 sites.

As experts have flown in from around the world, including France, Japan and India, the nature of the response has shifted away from volunteer activities. Mokshanand Sunil Dowarkasing, a former legislator and Greenpeace Africa consultant, described the response as “haphazard,” and said he was not convinced that the onsite presence of more than 100 experts from several countries would solve the problem. “There’s so much to be done; I don’t expect these people to be doing it alone. They cannot succeed in doing it alone,” he said.

A cleanup and restoration effort led by French company Le Floch Depollution, which was engaged by Protection and Indemnity Club (P&I), the insurer for Nagashiki Shipping, is also taking shape. They are expected to seek the help of locals.

Environmentalists say they’re worried such plans will be limited to scooping the oil from the sea, a cosmetic cleanup that will not account for the true impact of the spill on fragile marine ecosystems. “I fear that they will do a cleanup for two to three months and then say goodbye,” said Vikash Tatayah, director of conservation at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF). “What about the long-term impacts on marine life, on tourism on fisheries?”

Tourism is a mainstay of the Mauritian economy, contributing around 10% to the country’s economy and employing a quarter of the workforce. Thousands of people rely on fishing on the island nation.

The oil spill could also set back long-standing conservation efforts. Coral reefs are unique habitats brimming with fishes and myriad other marine life-forms. At the time of the spill, the corals and the fish life in the region were rebounding after coral sand mining was banned in Mauritius in 2001.

The MWF works on Ile aux Aigrettes, a coral island just north of the crash site. “It took MWF 36 years and over 300,000 plants to create such unique coastal forest,” Tatayah said in a Facebook post. He said he’s worried that contaminated underground water could kill the endemic plant species on the island.

There are also concerns that dumping sections of the wrecked ship in open waters could impact the whale pods that swarm the waters of Mauritius and neighboring La Réunion on their migration north from the frigid Antarctic waters during the southern winter. But experts like Nadeem Nazurally at the University of Mauritius disagree that sinking the bow will cause any lasting damage since it is not believed to have any toxic material in it.

He said he’s more worried about the coral reefs that he’s been studying for more than 20 years. Coral bleaching has periodically affected the reefs encircling Mauritius but some have fared better than others. “The corals of Pointe d’Ensy are more resistant to the effects of warming waters, they are sturdier,” said Nazurally, who is involved in coral farming in the area. He is currently unable to visit his field sites and said he fears the oily slime may be settling on the precious corals. The slimy layer can smother the corals and lead to an expulsion of zooxanthellae, the symbiotic microorganisms that live in the corals, and eventually bleaching.

Mangroves in the Bois des Amourettes, Rivière des Creoles, Anse Fauverelle, Deux Frères, Pointe du Diables and Grande Rivière Sud Est areas are already affected by oily sludge.

By the 1990s, Mauritius had lost much of its original mangrove cover. Since 1995, restoration efforts have gathered steam, with more than 400,000 saplings planted across the island. These saltwater-adapted tree species play a crucial role in protecting the coastline, recycling nutrients, sequestering carbon, and acting as nurseries for marine species. The government estimates that 70% of the country’s commercially important fish species rely on mangroves when they are juveniles. It’s not yet known whether mangrove saplings will survive the damage from the oil spill.

The impacts of the oil spill on these important ecosystems will have to be closely monitored, and restoration may happen over months if not years, experts say. “There is still a long way to go. It’s only the beginning of a long cleaning and decontamination process,” Tatayah said.

Featured image by: International Maritime Organization

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Malavika Vyawahare, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

It was one of the worst environmental disasters the world has witnessed. Ten years ago, on April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon exploratory rig exploded, killing 11 people and initiating the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, killing fish, dolphins, crabs, sea turtles, birds, and countless other marine, wetland and coastal plants and animals, underscoring the environmental degradation that oil drilling can cause.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A Summary 

When the leak was finally contained, 87 days later, an estimated 4.9 million barrels (480,000 cubic meters, or 210 million gallons) of oil had spilled, reaching 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) of shoreline and causing untold damage to the Gulf Coast region.

A newly published report by Oceana, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to protecting oceans, looks back at how this spill happened, the resulting ecological and economic impacts, and if this catastrophe has changed government or oil industry approaches to offshore drilling.

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oil drilling
Response crews battle the blaze of the off-shore oil rig, Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010 (Source: EPI2oh).

Oceana reviewed government documents, media coverage, scientific studies, and nonprofit reports. It also interviewed residents, scientists, business owners and policy experts across the Gulf Coast region. What the organization found was troubling.

What caused the BP oil spill?

Poor government oversight and inadequate safety culture paved the way for the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. Now, a decade later, it appears these conditions, the prerequisites for disaster, have not improved.

“Offshore drilling is still as dirty and dangerous as it was 10 years ago,” said Diane Hoskins, Oceana campaign director.

The U.S. government estimates that as much as 1.4 million barrels (227,000 m3, or 60 million gallons) of oil still remain in the Gulf of Mexico, and that the total economic damages have surpassed $1 billion. One study estimates the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico’s natural resources are around $17.2 billion. Both the oil and the removal efforts had negative effects on the health of workers and coastal communities. Marine ecosystems have yet to fully recover.

“It was an entire Gulf of Mexico-wide event,” Tracey Sutton of Nova Southeastern University said. “Nobody was ready for this scale of pollution … As far as we know, the actual impact of the spill is not over yet.”

The spill launched what is recognized as the longest marine mammal die-off in the Gulf of Mexico. For five years after the spill, 75% of all dolphin pregnancies failed in the affected areas. In the first few months of 2011, 186 bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) were found dead, nearly half of these were perinatal, or near birth.  The population of one of the most endangered whale species in the world, the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni), was reduced by 22%.

More than 600 sea turtles were found dead, three-quarters of them Kemp’s ridley turtles (Lepidochelys kempii), classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Scientists estimated that 170,000 sea turtles have died as a result of the oil spill and oil spill cleanup efforts.

An estimated 800,000 birds, 8.3 million oysters and trillions of larval fish and invertebrates were also killed.

Much of the oil from the spill settled on the ocean floor. Large expanses of the ocean floor surrounding the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig have been described as empty and void of life.

“The fact that you don’t see it [oil] on the beaches, or you don’t see it floating around … doesn’t mean that it’s gone,” Clifton Nunnally, a research scientist with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), who has been studying the Gulf of Mexico for 20 years, said in the Oceana report. “It means that it’s moved to a new ecosystem. And it’s a system that operates on the order of millennia, not just years or decades. So, the recovery for a deep-sea ecosystem like this could be a long-term process.”

More than 100,000 people were involved in containing and cleaning up the spill. Many of them were exposed to crude oil, which is toxic.  The chemical dispersants used to clean up the oil also resulted in respiratory, skin and eye problems for exposed workers. According to one study, oil spill cleanup workers had heart issues and blood disorders seven years after exposure.

Communities of color were particularly hard hit, “as these experience systemic oppression such as environmental racism,” according to an NAACP report. These coastal communities were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest tropical cycle on record, and this new disaster struck a hard blow for people who “already suffered from compromised economic status, displacement and substandard housing, fragile mental and physical health status, and socio-cultural disruption.”

“They failed our people,” Clarice Friloux, the outreach coordinator for the United Houma Nation during the spill, told Oceana. “At one point, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this could kill off the whole generation of Native Americans living off the coast of Louisiana.’”

In 2016, the court approved an $8.8 billion settlement with BP to trustees including, federal agencies, states and Indian tribes, for natural resource injuries connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Hundreds of spills still occur in U.S. waters every year. The oil pipelines in place in the Gulf of Mexico alone could circle the Earth.

“If anything, another disaster is more likely today as the oil industry drills deeper and farther offshore,” Hoskins said. “Instead of learning lessons from the BP disaster, President Trump is proposing to radically expand offshore drilling, while dismantling the few protections put in place as a result of the catastrophic blowout.”

The Trump administration has rolled back regulations on offshore drilling. The changes, described by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement as “amending, revising, or removing current regulatory provisions that create unnecessary burdens on stakeholders,” lessen the testing requirements for blowout preventers. A blowout preventer malfunction is cited as the cause of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Oceana has made several recommendations to the current U.S. administration, including urging Trump to halt efforts to expand offshore drilling, seek transformative change in the culture of safety in the industry, and to deny pending seismic permits for oil and gas. They recommend that congress put in place a moratorium on offshore drilling expansion and incentivize renewable energy.

“I saw firsthand the devastation, whether it was loss of livelihood, loss of culture, loss of land, health. We saw it and lived it on a daily basis,” said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, former principal chief of United Houma Nation. “The fact that BP could come in and do this to a community and really not suffer any consequences was just criminal.”

Featured image by: Office of Response and Restoration

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Liz Kimbrough, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

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