50 whales and dolphins died immediately after the major oil spill in the Indian Ocean tropical paradise island of Mauritius last month.
How toxic was the oil? How is it impacting marine life? What are some of the long term impacts of this oil spill? These are just some of the many questions that remain about the Mauritius oil spill since the large Japanese vessel struck an important coral reef in Southeast Mauritius and started spilling oil on August 6.
One of the biggest mysteries has been what has happened to the oil fingerprinting.
Oil fingerprinting is one of the most foundational acts for anyone involved in the oil industry. Whenever there is an oil spill, conducting oil fingerprinting is one of the first activities that is undertaken (essentially it is the same as collecting blood from a crime scene and conducting a DNA forensic analysis on that blood). This informs all the responders how the oil will react in the ocean water and how toxic the oil is.
One of the biggest mysteries is why the results of the oil fingerprinting not been published yet or even mentioned in any of the international or national reports coming from Mauritius. It’s been over two months since the oil spill, and the Mauritian Government had specifically requested international help in this area.
Today, satellite analysis for Forbes can reveal where that oil is being stored. There should no longer be any excuse preventing scientists from conducting such an analysis and publishing these results.
Understanding oil toxicity was one of the most fundamental questions that Forbes first asked when the oil spill first occurred.
In response to Forbes at the time on August 19, the UN agency responsible for shipping and ship fuel, London-based International Maritime Organization, admitted that they “don’t have any concrete information on this as yet,” and that the “longer-term fate and effects that are not yet known.”
To be clear, a highly toxic fuel was spilled into Mauritius’ clear waters around a major biodiversity hotspot that was internationally protected, and the UN regulator of these fuels admitted that they had not conducted the required safety tests around this fuel. Within days of the oil spill, 50 whales and dolphins had washed up dead on Mauritius’s shores. Mysterious dark substances can now be seen swirling around the coast of Mauritius, that could be the result of harmful biological activity caused by this oil.
Questions surround the role of the UN’s IMO
The fuel on the ship is regulated by the UN’s International Maritime Organization, and was certified safe by them. Another matter is how such an unknown fuel could be aboard a single-hulled vessel. For such risky fuels, a double-hulled ship would have avoided the oil spill that has caused so much devastation in Mauritius.
All oil tankers have had to be double-hulled since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, but the IMO has allowed a loophole for the 60,000 large ocean vessels that continue to operate with the riskier single-hull model.
This is despite the size of ships ballooning 1500% in the last 50 years. Today’s largest container and bulk vessels carry as much oil in them as the oil tankers of the past did.
So even if the IMO did not know the effects of the oil at the time, it would be evident that the IMO should be rushing to discover the oil characteristics in the colder waters of the Southern Hemisphere winter for Mauritius that is at a Latitude of 20 degrees South.
The IMO were the lead agency on the ground coordinating the entire oil spill response, and from statements issued by the IMO show there was an entire team at the IMO supporting the oil spill effort in Mauritius.
The delays in the oil fingerprinting means the mystery deepens
It is 65 days since the grounding of the Wakashio and 53 days since thousands of gallons of toxic ship fuel oil started gushing out. The country is in the dark about how much oil has been spilled, causing even more confusion for the cleanup operation among Mauritians.
Knowing how the oil behaves in the ocean is critical.
Why has this oil fingerprinting not been done yet? It is highly unusual to wait this long.
An analysis by satellites, performed by global maritime analytics firm, Windward, reveals that the oil from the Wakashio was pumped directly off the Wakashio’s holds to storage tanks in Port Louis. Presumably, the oil is still in Port Louis and such an oil fingerprinting exercise can now take place.
Oil fingerprinting takes a matter of hours to do, so the results should instantly be available for the world to understand what the oil’s impact is.
With 50 dead whales and dolphins around the area of the oil slick (that has impacted a 36km stretch of coastline and has 125 square kilometers cordoned off), knowing what is in the oil will be critical to ensure there is no additional harm on marine life or human life along the coast.
Three oil support vessels collected the evidence
There were three vessels involved in pumping the oil from the Wakashio. They are known as bunker fuel vessels. These are smaller than crude oil tankers, but designed specifically to carry ship fuel oil to pump vessels at sea (or in the case of the Wakashio, transfer to somewhere safe).
Satellite analysis reveals that these vessels can be identified as the MT Elise, the Tresta Star and the St Kitts and Nevis’ flagged, MT Gulf Star 1.
In a statement on August 10, 2020, the owner of the ‘MV Wakashio,’ Nagashiki Shipping Co Ltd, said that “Salvage efforts remain ongoing. Nagashiki Shipping has contracted a renowned professional response organization and salvage team who are in close liaison with the Mauritian authorities and are continuously working to mitigate the spill. The primary focus at this time is reducing the effects of the spill and protecting the environment.
The authorities have ordered two tankers, the MT Elise, MT Tresta Star and tugs to assist with the removal of the fuel oil from the Wakashio. A hose connection has been successfully established with the MT Elise, which is safely alongside and the transfer of fuel oil is underway. MT Tresta Star remains on standby at the site.”
In case there was any difficulty locating the oil, satellite analysis by global maritime specialists, Windward, were able to identify where the oil was transported to daily. From the vessel movement patterns, it appears all the oil is in Port Louis.
This should make it relatively straightforward to conduct the oil fingerprinting.
Oil testing takes a matter of hours
In today’s world, the process takes a matter of hours, and the equipment needed to run an oil fingerprinting exercise (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry or GS-MS) exists everywhere around the world.
All major refineries have to run a GS-MS every few hours to ensure the oil they are producing is to specification.
What happened to the international ‘experts?’
The ITOPF are also in Mauritius. They were established precisely to conduct this sort of analysis.
Their website describes the organization as “the leading, not-for-profit marine ship pollution response advisers providing impartial advice worldwide on effective response to spills of oil & chemicals.”
They were established by oil tanker owners as a response to more effectively managing oil spills and limiting liability or insurance payouts. They actually have guidelines and playbooks for every scenario to do with handling an oil spill on their website.
They even have very specific guidance on how to handle sampling and fingerprinting oil, even down to the type of bottle to be used. This document is called Technical Information Paper 14, and is entitled ‘TIP 14: Sampling and monitoring of marine oil spills.’
Why was this guidance not issued or followed?
The ITOPF never once held a press conference for the national or international media to ask this question, none of their press statements about Mauritius contained this information.
They have also never responded to Forbes’ questions with responses that were on the record.
Evasiveness by other international organizations
The IMO has been on the ground in Mauritius since August 12. The IMO representative appeared more interested in rubbing oil against his hands and calling it ‘hand cream,’ than doing the serious work of oil fingerprinting.
How could such an omission of not conducting oil fingerprinting occur?
Was it just coincidence that eight major international organizations with deep oil spill response experience all conveniently ‘forgot’ to do oil fingerprinting in the early days of a major oil spill?
That is the IMO, ITOPF, JICA, vessel insurer Japan P&I Club, the vessel owner, Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd and the vessel operators, Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), Le Floch Depollution and PolyEco Group that were appointed by the insurer to clean up the oil (but how could they do this without knowing the characteristics of the oil?). All of whom were present on the ground in Mauritius in the early days of the oil spill.
These questions could easily have been addressed if there was openness and transparency with a unified press conference, as is normal in such circumstances of a major oil spill.
With all eight organizations not answering questions from the international media on oil fingerprinting, many may wonder whether there is more here than meets the eye in Mauritius and the Wakashio oil spill.
Despite offering an interview to Forbes by a senior official, the IMO has now moved this three times without a clear explanation, and no senior official from the IMO has yet spoken about the Wakashio oil spill on the record. Mauritius is in a National Environmental Emergency with over 100,000 on the streets protesting, and the IMO was the lead UN coordinating agency specifically on oil spill response, including commissioning the oil fingerprinting analysis.
Not exactly the actions of a transparent regulator.
Satellites never lie
As a saying in the space industry goes, ‘satellites never lie.’ The oil has been found.
All that is needed is a thimble full of oil to conduct the oil fingerprinting.
What are investigators waiting for?