As the forward part of the Japanese Oil Spill Ship was towed across the Indian Ocean in a Southeasterly direction, the local Mauritian media was reporting on Friday 21, that levels of arsenic found in coastal fish caught close to the Wakashio wreck had significantly increased.
According to the World Health Organization, Arsenic exists as a natural component of the Earth and is harmless to humans in small doses. Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic, mainly through drinking-water and food, can lead to chronic arsenic poisoning and other more serious complications.
Oil spills in the ocean increase the levels of arsenic causing many long term consequences, that have been well studied from oil spills around the world.
As more oil-drenched and dead turtles, crabs, eels, and fish wash up on Mauritius’ once sandy shores, the need for more scientific sampling and testing is becoming clearer.
Wakashio towed to unknown destination
Under the cover of darkness in the evening of Tuesday 18 August, the towing operation began and was captured by SAR satellite that can see through clouds and at night. The broken off forward section of grounded Japanese iron-ore carrier, the Wakashio, was dragged by two Malta-flagged support vessels, the Boka Expedition and the Boka Sumit, to an unknown destination South East of Mauritius, in a heading that was taking it in the direction of Antarctica.
In a series of Government press conferences and statements since Tuesday 18 August, a lot of details were revealed about the decision to scuttle the large vessel – one of the largest in the ocean – except the final co-ordinates of where the Wakashio was being taken to be sunk.
This was an important omission over three days of press statements, and representatives from the shipping company, Japan-based Nagashiki Shipping, did not return requests for the exact co-ordinates that the vessel was being taken to.
Dramatic footage on local TV captured the operation to fill the holds of the vessel and sink the boat over a 24 hour window. Red residue could clearly be seen through the open hold doors, swirling around amid the frothing ocean water that had started to gush in.
A spokesperson for the London based International Maritime Organization, the UN agency responsible for global shipping and maritime pollution (a set of rules called MARPOL), was unequivocal in a statement to Forbes on 21 August, “Monitoring, compliance and enforcement of MARPOL falls to Governments and national authorities of Member States that are Parties to MARPOL. Flag States (the State of registry of a ship) and port States have rights and responsibilities to enforce compliance.”
Earlier in the week on Wednesday 19 August, high resolution satellite imagery had captured the Wakashio being accompanied by its two support vessels.
Role of IMO under scrutiny
Amid the ongoing secrecy, mystery and potential sinking of the Wakashio, questions are being asked about the precise nature of the assistance offered by the UN Agency and global shipping regulator, the International Maritime Organization.
Upon receiving a request from the Government of Mauritius for very specific and well defined assistance, the IMO deployed an oil spill specialist to Mauritius, arriving on 11 August – five days after the Wakashio had started spilling ship engine oil into the coral lagoon – and four days before the vessel split in two.
After providing earlier negative test results for Covid-19 and again testing negative for Covid-19 upon arrival, the specialist was released from quarantine on 12 August.
As part of the agreed scope of work, the IMO specialist’s role was restricted only to advice on the oil spill response and no other part of the operation. A spokesperson from the IMO’s Headquarters in London confirmed that the role and mandate of the IMO expert was restricted to one topic only – only to providing advice specifically on oil pollution response matters.
This is where the overlap becomes unclear in Mauritius. In a series of written responses, the IMO spokesperson confirmed to Forbes today that:
- The IMO did not advise or help evaluate options on the disposal of the Wakashio, except only limited to advice where there was a risk of oil spill and therefore need for oil spill response. In statements by the Government of Mauritius on 19 August, it had been confirmed that there was no longer any oil in the forward section of the Wakashio, only the rear (aft) section that was still grounded on the reefs and only contained a small amount of lubricating oils. So was advice from the IMO given to the Forward section of the Wakashio, when there was no oil in this section?
- The specialists did not advise on the options for the disposal of the Wakashio, except only where it related to any risk of oil spill and therefore the possible need for oil spill response. Again, it had already been confirmed prior to towing that there was no oil in the forward section of the Wakashio. So was advice given from the IMO on options for disposal for the Wakashio, as it was confirmed there was no oil in this section?
- The IMO spokesperson was clear that it was not in the scope of work for the IMO specialist to advise on or endorse the decision to scuttle the Wakashio at the location that was decided upon.
- The IMO spokesperson was clear that the it was not in the scope of work of the IMO specialist to offer advice on the state of the Wakashio, or whether any toxic materials were present on the vessel, including assessing risk from materials used for the construction of the vessel. This is the responsibility of the flag state (in this case, Panama)
- The IMO also re-confirmed that the Mauritius Government requested very specific and scope-bound assistance from IMO only on Oil Spill Response, and that the Government had been liaising and in dialogue with other agencies, the salvage company and the ship owner.
The salvage operation was managed by the salvage company, in this case SMIT Salvage, in dialogue with the Government of Mauritius and representatives of the ship owner. The spokesperson confirmed that the IMO had no involvement in the salvage operation.