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Mauritians Take Wakashio Oil Spill Battle to Island’s Supreme Court

A general view shows the bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio, that ran aground on a reef, at Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, in this handout image obtained by Reuters on August 10, 2020. French Army command/Handout via REUTERS

Mauritians Take Wakashio Oil Spill Battle to Island’s Supreme Court

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July 25, 2022

Nearly 1,700 seafarers and inhabitants of Mauritius who have been adversely impacted by the Wakaship oil spill will file a lawsuit against Okiyo Maritime Corp. The State of Mauritius could also turn to courts, tells a source.

By Vel Moonien in Mauritius (gCaptain) –

The left-wing political movement Rezistans ek Alternativ (ReA) hinted about the class action during last year’s first anniversary of the Wakashio grounding on the reefs of Pointe-d’Esny, taking place the evening of July 25, 2020.

Nearly 1,700 seafarers and inhabitants of the southeastern shoreline of Mauritius will soon file a lawsuit before the Mauritian Supreme Court against Okiyo Maritime Corporation, the owner of the ore-carrier. They will claim damages for the adverse effects of the oil spill on their livelihood.

“When Okiyo Maritime Corporation, the owner of Wakashio filed a motion before the Mauritian Supreme Court on October 19, 2021, to limit its liability up to 719.6 million of rupees last year, that is around 16.8 million USD, we decided to be a party against this move. We will seek authorization for a class action for all those who derive a livelihood from the sea, be it skipper, an oyster picker or a shopkeeper”, says Ashok Subron, one of the leaders of ReA who turned to the local branch of international law firm Dentons to represent those persons. “We think that the government is washing its hands regarding the compensation that these persons have the right to expect”, adds Ashok Subron.

“Some fishermen were paid a sum equivalent to the minimal wage. They won’t be able to sue the ship-owner as per the documents they have been asked to sign”, says Ashok Subron. “All this is dubious. There is an opacity surrounding the government’s action against Okiyo Maritime Corporation. It gives the impression of wanting to negotiate with the Japanese government to finance infrastructural projects. He is taking advantage of the situation for its own needs”, added Subron who is also a union leader.

The Minister of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping, Sudheer Maudhoo, for his part, declined to comment on the claims surrounding the grounding.

“Claims, supported by documents, are being made periodically. But the major parts are being rejected. Based on this trend, an action before local courts would likely to be considered”, according to one well-informed source from the government who spoke under conditions of anonymity. “We have not yet made the total of the damages to be claimed. A study on the impact of the grounding of the ship on the reef, for example, has to be finalized”, pointed out a second one. “We are completely left in the dark. We don’t know what the government is doing”, indicates Sébastien Sauvage of Eco-Sud, an environmental NGO based in the South of Mauritius.

Sébastien Sauvage is also worried about crustaceans and other invertebrates collected from mangroves bathed in heavy oil are being put on sale for human consumption.

“We don’t know the effect of the oil on the food chain. The absence of a medical follow-up is worrying. We did a study some time back but we did not get any feedback from the ministry of Health”, said Sébastien Sauvage. Ashok Subron is also asking for the publication of the results regarding the toxicity of the oil, the more so whereas at least 100,000 volunteers helped to clean the shore with artisanal booms made with hair and sugar cane straw the day after the oil spill.

The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) is monitoring the impact of the oil-spill on the fauna and flora on Ile-aux-Aigrettes, an islet transformed in a nature reserve and scientific research station off the coast of Blue-Bay, next to Pointe-d’Esny. The effects would be known in four or five years as it has been documented elsewhere in the world, says Vikash Tatayah, Conservation Director for MWF.

“Insects have been the first victims. This will affect the whole food chain. The number of reptiles on other islets in the area declined. As their areas are very small, this could be explained by human interaction during the cleaning of the oil-spill”, explains Vikash Tatayah.

The charterer of MV Wakashio, Mitsui O.S.K Lines (MOL) has set up a foundation on the island to support the local communities affected by the oil spill. Last week, the President and Director General of MOL, Takeshi Hashimoto, announced the launching of a feasibility study in Mauritius on the combined use of deep ocean water with Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) for the production of renewable energy. ReA believes that all this is insufficient, as the livelihoods of the people on the South-eastern coastline have also been negatively impacted by a flood and two sanitary lockdowns due to Covid-19.

In the meantime, the preliminary findings of the Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB) on the accident have been leaked in the media. The JTSB made a long list of errors made by the captain. He deviated from his course to near the island on several occasions to connect to the mobile phone network so as to enable the crew to contact their loved ones via WhatsApp. A majority of the men on board have spent more than a year at sea, Covid-19 having erupted worldwide earlier in 2020, thus preventing crew replacement. The MV Wakashio also came close to Sumatra for the same reason after it left Singapore where it refueled.

Up to now, the findings of the Court of Investigation set up by the Mauritian government in September 2020 and which ended its auditions last February. Chaired by an ex-judge of the Supreme Court, its mandate is to enquire into, and report on, the circumstances leading to the grounding of MV Wakashio. It also had to verify that the standard practice and procedures for the tracking and monitoring of vessels in Mauritian EEZ have been adhered to. Ensuring that there was a proper management of the salvage operation is also part of his attributions, as well as ascertaining cause and the scale of the damage caused by ore-carrier, including the oil spill’s impact on marine life.

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