Large cracks were reported to have appeared in the hull of a cargo ship fleeing oil in Mauritius, prompting the Prime Minister to warn that it could “break in two”.
The MV Wakashio, which reportedly carried 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil, ran aground on a coral reef off the Indian Ocean island on July 25.
Despite the bad weather, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said 500 tonnes had been pumped safely on Monday.
But he warned the country was bracing for a “worst-case scenario.”
Mauritius is home to world famous coral reefs and tourism is a crucial part of its economy.
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The fuel was transferred ashore by helicopter and to another vessel owned by the same Japanese company, Nagashiki Shipping.
Former colonial ruler France sent a military plane with pollution control equipment from its neighboring island of Reunion, while Japan sent a six-member team to aid the French efforts.
The Mauritian coast guard and several police units are also on site in the south-east of the island.
Since the weekend, volunteers have been collecting straw in the fields and filling sacks to form barriers against oil.
Others made their own tubes with pantyhose and hair to add to the strain, and some cleaned up the island’s beaches.
Their actions went against a government order asking people to leave the cleanup to local authorities.
“People understood that they had to take matters into their own hands. We are here to protect our flora and fauna, ”environmental activist Ashok Subron told AFP news agency on Sunday.
Mitsui OSK Lines, the operator of the vessel, said on Sunday it had tried to place its own containment booms around the vessel but had failed due to the rough seas.
It is believed that the bulk carrier, registered in Panama, had about 4,000 tonnes of fuel on board when it ran aground. The entire crew was evacuated.
More than 1,000 tons of oil are believed to have entered the waters surrounding the island nation.
Fears for the environment
Environmentalists worry about the impact on the country’s ecosystem.
The MV Wakashio ran aground at Pointe d’Esny, a sanctuary known for its rare wildlife. The area also contains wetlands designated as a Site of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
Happy Khamule of Greenpeace Africa warned that “thousands” of animal species “risked drowning in a sea of pollution, with disastrous consequences for the economy, food security and health of Mauritius”.
Mauritius has “globally significant reptile populations with a unique genetic heritage” which may be endangered species, said Vikash Tataya, conservation director of the Mauritian Wildlife Organization.
At a press conference, Akihiko Ono, executive vice president of Mitsui OSK Lines, apologized “profusely” for the spill and for “the serious problems we have caused”.
He promised that the company would do “everything in its power to solve the problem.”
Mauritius police said they received a search warrant, allowing them to board the ship and take away items of interest such as the ship’s logbook to facilitate an investigation. The ship’s captain will assist the officers in their research.
Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of emergency and appealed for help on Friday.