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Mauritius races to contain oil spill, protect coastline

Eric Villars via AP This photo taken and provided by Eric Villars shows oil leaking from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius, Friday, Aug. 7.

JOHANNESBURG — Thousands of students, environmental activists and residents of Mauritius were working around the clock Sunday, trying to reduce the damage to the Indian Ocean island from an oil spill after a tanker ran aground on a coral reef.

An estimated 1 ton of oil from the Japanese ship’s cargo of 4 tons has already escaped into the sea, officials said. Workers were seeking to stop more oil from leaking, but with high winds and rough seas on Sunday there were reports of new cracks to the ship’s hull.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has declared a state of emergency and appealed for international help. He said the spill “represents a danger” for the country of 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has been hurt by travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Satellite images show a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near wetlands that the government called “very sensitive.” Wildlife workers and volunteers, meanwhile, ferried dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants from an island near the spill, Ile aux Aigrettes, to the mainland.

“This is no longer a threat to our environment, it is a full-blown ecological disaster that has affected one of the most environmentally important parts of Mauritius, the Mahebourg Lagoon,” said Sunil Dowarkasing, an environmental consultant and former member of parliament.

“The people of Mauritius, thousands and thousands, have come out to try to prevent as much damage as possible,” said Dowarkasing, who spoke from the relief efforts at Bois des Amourettes by the lagoon.

He said people have created long floating oil booms to try to slow the spread into the lagoon and onto the coast. The hastily made fabric booms are stuffed with sugar cane leaves and straw and kept afloat with plastic bottles, he said. People are also using empty oil drums to scoop up as much oil as possible from shallower waters.

University students and members of the local Lions and Rotary clubs are among the volunteers, he said.

“We are working flat out. It’s a major challenge, because the oil is not only floating in the lagoon, it’s already washing up on the shore,” said Dowarkasing. “The booms are really working in many spots.”

He said the steady winds and waves have spread the fuel across the eastern side of the island.

“We’ve never seen anything like this in Mauritius,” he said.

The lagoon is a protected area, created several years ago to preserve an area in Mauritius as it was 200 years ago.

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