Newspaper reports in Mauritius this week have raised concerns about tampering with the oil fingerprinting linked to the Japanese-owned vessel, the Wakashio.
The vessel ran aground amid a network of highly protected areas in Mauritius at the end of July, and was responsible for the biggest oil spill in Mauritius history 12 days later, setting off a State of National Environmental Emergency in the country and an ecological crisis as endangered species on a highly protected reserve were directly impacted by the spill.
In the national Mauritian newspaper, the Le Mauricien on 4 October 2020, a full page is devoted to the concerns about the handling of the oil fingerprinting by the crew of the Wakashio.
This comes amid questions about the role of the IMO and ITOPF in not facilitating the rapid oil fingerprinting as thousands of animals have now washed up dead in the South of Mauritius, over 50 whales and dolphins have died, and an entire island of highly endangered species are at risk.
This oil fingerprinting is crucial to understand the potential long-term impacts on these species, as it acts as a DNA signature to help scientists model the impact of the oil on Mauritius’ unique ecosystem.
Serious flaws in handling of oil samples to date
In the article published on October 4, the newspaper identifies several serious flaws with the way the oil sample could have potentially been handled on board the vessel.
The biggest concern was that the sample collection did not follow IMO guidelines on independently validating the collection sites and ensuring clear chain of custody protocols, with a member of the inspecting authority (Mauritius) present during collection.
A member of Mauritius investigating authority should have been present on board the Wakashio to verify and agree where the sample was collected from within the large engine of a ship (which can often be as large as a school building). This would have ensured a clear chain of custody provenance of the samples. The Le Mauricien article highlights that with COVID-19 restrictions, Mauritian authorities were not boarding the Wakashio. Hence there are questions whether these samples would meet the strict conditions set in court.
Fortunately, the engine part of the wreck remains on the reefs of Mauritius, and the salvage crew have not yet arrived for the dismantling of this section. This means it is not too late to ensure valid samples are collected, even if they are slightly weathered. By being within the engine room, they are likely to be somewhat protected.
This will be critical for Mauritius to avoid a costly error later on during the legal and scientific proceedings.
Four types of fuel on the Wakashio
When the Wakashio grounded, it was revealed that there were four types of fuel on board. It is important to understand the effects of each on how it weathers in order to determine the toxicity effects on various marine life.
In a statement by Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) on August 16, the operator of the vessel, listed the oils and volumes when the vessel ran aground on July 25:
- Approximately 3,800 metric tons of Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO)
- 200 metric tons of Diesel Oil (DO)
- Approximately 100 metric tons of Lubricant oil and Residual oil.
With the death of over 50 whales and dolphins, and thousands of sea creatures washing up dead five miles from the crash site weeks later on Ilot Brocus, this oil fingerprinting data is critical to the oil spill response.
Some of the details within a Government statement released on September 30 have triggered more questions in the Mauritian media, amid demands for additional samples to be collected from the stranded wreck that contains the section with the engine.
Statement by Mauritian Ministry of Environment
In a statement by the Mauritian Ministry of Environment on 30 September 2020, entitled ‘Characterization of oil collected from MV Wakashio,’ authorities originally said,
“Samples of oil were collected from MV Wakashio by its crew in accordance with the MARPOL convention and handed over to the Mauritian authorities prior to the spill. During the oil spill, the National Environmental Laboratory also collected several samples of oil from the impacted sites. Part of the samples were handed over to the SGS Mauritius Ltd, Cedre and AMSA for full characterization or fingerprinting.
SGS Mauritius Ltd has carried out a partial characterization of the sample of collected oil, whereas Cedre has carried out a complete assessment and submitted a full report. Additionally, AMSA has also submitted a preliminary report and the full report is still awaited. The Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) profiles have been established. As such, long term monitoring of the PAHs is envisaged under the Integrated Environmental Monitoring Programme.”
There has been no detail about the number of samples, location of where in the engine room the samples were collected, date and time of collection.
Given the presence of four types of oil on the vessel, it is important that each of the international organizations involved were given the largest and most important sample of oil, the over 1 million gallons of ship engine fuel (VLSFO).
Collection of oil under supervised conditions
There are several international guidelines on how oil should be collected. These are written and clearly understood by the UN shipping regulator, the IMO.
Certain countries, like Singapore, have established international best practice for oil sample handling.
Their 7-point guide emphasizes the importance and diligence given to the sampling point as this would affect the quality of the samples. There is also a need for place of sampling to have been proposed by the ship’s representative and accepted by the inspector (in this case the Mauritian authorities).
Following the sample collection, there is a five-point guide for handling samples (which is unclear how Mauritius was planning to handle its samples as no photographs have so far been disclosed of the oil handling process).
With the case of the Wakashio, several discrepancies were raised in the Le Mauricien article. Specifically, that given COVID-19 restrictions, members of the Mauritian Coastguard had not been on board the Wakashio, as the Prime Minister of Mauritius stated in parliament.
This raises the question over how robust the location of the sampling and the chain of custody had been for these samples.
There are several legal instruments that are international law under the IMO which guides a casualty investigation (listed here), and also ensures clear responsibilities of the Vessel Fuel Supplier, Vessel Owner, Operator, Master and Chief Engineer for the handling of any evidence during an investigation. Some of the relevant laws are included under SOLAS Ch I Reg 21; Ch XI-1 Reg 6; MARPOL Art 8; Art 12; Art 23 (Which covers how a ship is loaded, included with ballast water, as this can have a considerable impact on vessel safety). The IMO also has a Casualty Investigation Code – Resolution MSC.255(84) – that also lists some of the protocols expected from all parties during an investigation.
So it would be prudent for both Mauritius and the vessel representatives to ensure the samples are properly identified and collected. Although just a thimble-worth of oil is needed, ideally 400 milliliters or even 1 liter should be sufficient. Collecting such a sample from the engine room today is perhaps more important than just relying on one sample that may be challenged in court.
Given that there was over 1 million gallons of oil on board the Wakashio, there are likely to be remnants around the engine that can be collected following the Singapore best practice model.
Opportunity to collect samples while stern still on reef
With the stern of the Wakashio still on the reefs of Mauritius, it should not be too challenging to collect another set of samples given the daily helicopter flights to the Wakashio.
A shortlist of five salvors have been identified, and so there is time to for these salvors to collect the sample together with ship’s representatives and Mauritian authorities, before the engine room is fully dismantled.
At the same time, it is also important for the salvors and Mauritian authorities to take detailed photographs of the engine room.
Given the dramatic findings of the Voice Data Recorder (VDR) on Friday September 10, one of the theories to be tested in the investigation has been around potential engine trouble or an engine malfunction. This could explain how an out of control engine could have driven the vessel at a cruising speed of 11 knots straight into the coral reefs, with the crew perhaps being too distracted fixing the engine to notice they were running aground and missing the Coastguard messages.
To demonstrate this, detailed images would need to be taken of the engine room, to get a sense of the pistons, engines, electronics, filters etc. Even though there is likely to be some water damage, there is a lot that forensic crash investigators can identify from the detailed images.
With salvors needed to board the wreck prior to dismantling, this is a reasonable request for the Mauritian Authorities to make as part of the independent Mauritian investigation that the IMO says is important to conduct.
Not capturing detailed photos of the engine room would be serious negligence on part of Mauritian Authorities as well as Salvors.
Contact with Singapore authorities
Satellite analysis reveals that the vessel was last fueled in Singapore before heading toward Mauritius, and was carrying a full tank of oil.
Given the likely toxicity of the oil spilled into the lagoon, international organizations such as the IMO and ITOPF should have already reached out to the Singaporean authorities and suppliers for samples of the VLSFO oil used. These are standard operating protocols that UNEP and NOAA suggest, who had also offered help to Mauritius but had been rebuffed.
These are usually kept for months by the fuel supplier as part of any investigation or claim against faulty fuel, and are sealed using a special bottle called a BDN that follows strict IMO rules.
Singapore is one of the world’s largest bunker fueling hubs in the world, proud of its best practices and strict compliance.
That should have been information contained in the vessel logs and oil fingerprinting samples should have been compared with the stored samples in Singapore to form a better understanding of the likely spread, toxicity and effects of this fuel on the fragile coastline of Mauritius.
It is surprising that these results have not already been released, as 13 years ago, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was able to produce the results of three types of oil being carried by the Heibei Spirit in the in South Korea within 10 days, and the technology to measure oil fingerprinting (GC-MS) is now widely available.
According to the Government of Mauritius’s of 30 September statement, the Governments of France (CEDRE) and the Government of Australia (AMSA) had already conducted preliminary analysis, so it will be important to see early results and compare to the many more oil samples that should have been collected daily from the entire length of the 32 km of oil spill-affected coastline.
As with several statements in Mauritius when it comes to the Wakashio oil spill, facts often seem to change after each event.
Let’s hope on this topic the world can quickly build a consensus and stop politicizing marine science.