At 1 a.m. on July 25, 2020, in Tokyo, Junichiro Ikeda, then CEO of shipping company Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), was most likely already in bed. At the same time in London, Bernard Looney, CEO of British Petroleum (BP), was probably enjoying a most pleasant weekend. The two have probably had a pretty routine day, in many ways a forgettable day.
However, for the 1.2 million inhabitants of Mauritius, it did not happen quite the same way. On a somewhat cloudy evening, the island nation was hit by the worst environmental disaster in its history.
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The Wakashio, one of the largest capesize bulk carriers in the world, was en route from China to Brazil via the Indian Ocean. As he approached the south coast of Mauritius, he ran aground on a coral reef. A few days later, the giant ship, operated by MOL, began dumping its fuel, supplied by BP, into a pristine lagoon within the maritime borders of the East African country.
As the ship slowly disintegrated in mid-August, Mauritius’ waters and shores were inundated with nearly 1,000 tonnes of toxic fuel, destroying the livelihoods of countless fishermen and tourism workers. Thousands of people risked their health fighting the oil spill, often with their bare hands, and building protective dams made from their own hair.
Against the advice of environmental organizations, the Mauritian government rushed to sink the front part of the Wakashio in a whale nursery area. We may never know if this action contributed to the deaths of more than 50 whales and dolphins whose carcasses washed up on shore in the months that followed, as no information on the circumstances of their deaths has been found. been publicly disclosed. At least three crew members of a tugboat lost their lives trying to remove as much oil as possible.
Unfortunately, the Mauritian government has chosen to protect businesses and withhold vital information from the public. A year later, there has been no transparency on the exact type of oil that leaked or why the front part of the vessel was sunk instead of being towed and recycled.
There has been no disclosure of autopsies performed on whale and dolphin carcasses. There was no assessment of ecological damage. Information on the MOL’s compensation has not been made public and the risk of mini-spills and additional damage persists as long as the dismantling of the vessel drags on. Much of the affected area remains inaccessible to scientists, NGOs and the media.
After the disaster, Mr. Ikeda from MOL rushed to apologize and promised that the Wakashio incident should never happen again. But the sad truth is that since the Wakashio ran aground, many other shipping and oil “incidents” have continued to occur, from Venezuela to Israel to Sri Lanka. Other disasters are looming as we write these lines, such as the threat posed by the tanker FSO Safer, which is rusting on the Red Sea coast in Yemen.
These are dismal examples of the dysfunctional nature of the shipping and fossil fuel industries and the failure of global governments to regulate them.
As uncomfortable as it may be to admit, there is no safe way to extract or burn oil, and neither is there a safe way to transport it. The industry knows this, but doesn’t feel the need to change, even amid the triple crisis of climate change, declining biodiversity and pollution.