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Mitsui O.S.K. probes massive oil spill off Mauritius

Island nation's biodiversity and all-important tourism sector threatened

TOKYO -- Mitsui O.S.K. Lines will send experts and staffers to investigate a massive oil spill by a vessel it operated off the coast of Mauritius, the company said Sunday, responding to an incident that made headlines around the world and dealt a devastating blow to the local environment.

More than 1,000 tons of oil has leaked from the Panama-flagged Wakashio, a bulk carrier owned by Nagashiki Shipping and chartered by Mitsui O.S.K., according to the latter. The full impact of the spill remains unknown.

"We apologize profusely and deeply for the great trouble we have caused," said Akihiko Ono, an executive vice president at Mitsui O.S.K., in a news conference here.

The Wakashio ran aground on a reef off Mauritius on July 25, damaging a 1,180-ton fuel tank. Despite efforts to remove fuel from this tank, only 50 tons or so of fuel was apparently recovered.

Mauritius' coast guard had warned the Wakashio that it was approaching shallow waters before the incident, according to some reports.

The leaked oil has reportedly spread far, with a portion already reaching the coast. Sea booms have been put in place to keep the oil from reaching sensitive areas.

Mauritius is an island nation off the African coast. The former French and British colony is known for its beaches and relies heavily on tourists for income, and a quick cleanup is important both environmentally and economically.

Mauritius declared a state of environmental emergency Friday and is asking France and the United Nations for help. Local cleanup efforts have already begun, with volunteers moving turtles, birds and other animals to safety.

But chemicals employed to break up the oil can also hurt coral reefs. "We won't be able to use them unless we get the green light from the authorities in Mauritius," Nagashiki Shipping President Kiyoaki Nagashiki said.

French President Emmanuel Macron urged swift action to save biodiversity in a Saturday tweet.

"Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons ... are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius' economy, food security and health," said Happy Khambule, senior climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa, in a news release Friday.

Mitsui O.S.K. and Nagashiki Shipping have not said how much cleanup efforts are expected to cost. When the Russian-flagged tanker Nakhodka sank in the Sea of Japan back in 1997, spilling about 6,200 tons of oil, agreed-to damages payments reached 26.1 billion yen ($246 million at current rates).

Generally, the vessel owner would be the one expected to pay damages. Payments will likely be capped at 2 billion to 7 billion yen for a ship of the Wakashio's size under a convention on liability for maritime claims, according to Michio Aoki, an attorney who is an expert on accidents at sea.

"We don't know the full extent of the harm yet, so we don't know what such payments would even look like," Kiyoaki Nagashiki said.

Mitsui O.S.K. could also come under fire for its role in the accident. The company said that it had kept track of its 800-vessel fleet every few hours and that it wants to respond appropriately, given the heavy impact of the spill.

"Even if the company is not directly responsible for the accident, it will likely take steps to resolve the issue and could book some extraordinary costs," a maritime shipping analyst said.

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