Newly released documents reveal that BP was behind the toxic oil involved in the Mauritius oil spill in the Indian Ocean last year. Even more troubling are revelations that BP formally blocked the investigation into the fuel that was being used on board the large Japanese bulk carrier.
The documents also show that the oil on the Wakashio was known to be faulty from the moment the vessel set sail from Singapore on its final, fateful voyage across the Indian Ocean.
Ship operator, Japanese shipping giant Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) knew the oil exceeded engine safety limits and they were concerned during the Wakashio’s final voyage that this fuel could cause serious engine failure, which they attempted to communicate to the ship’s crew. Both BP and MOL were taking a gamble with the lives of the crew and the coastline of surrounding countries by allowing the vessel to sail with this fuel on board.
The oil – called Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil or VLSFO – is an experimental mixture of jet fuel and heavy ship oil that is causing engine failures around the world on large ocean-bound vessels. It was rushed through for approval by the United Nations shipping agency (the IMO) in January 2020 without proper safety testing. This fuel currently powers 70% of all large ships around the world, and at least 6% of these vessels (3600 ships) are at risk of engine failure at any one moment. There has been a 20% spike in major shipping incidents in 2020, that the shipping regulator, the IMO, has failed to properly investigate.
The Wakashio was fueled at the world’s largest ship bunkering fuel hub, the Port of Singapore, which is responsible for fueling one in five vessels globally. The Port of Singapore has also appeared surprisingly uncooperative in trying to locate or analyze oil samples vital for Mauritius’ investigation into the spill. Ship bunker fuel from Singapore were found to have exceeded the legally permitted amount of sulfur and other critical safety parameters in tests conducted by oil specialists Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS) in recent years. Government agencies from Canada, the U.K., the U.S., Australia and France were all mobilized to support Mauritius last summer, yet were mysteriously sidelined by the IMO and the Government of Japan who took over the oil spill response from the Government of Mauritius.
VLSFO Ship Fuel has been described as a ‘super-pollutant’ by environmental NGOs, with calls for it to be immediately banned from the Arctic and other parts of the ocean where it could be exposed to biologically sensitive areas or population centers.
These documents came to light as part of a six-month international investigation conducted by several investigative organizations and involving four of Greenpeace’s international offices. Many of the documents were revealed through Freedom of Information requests lodged in several countries around the world.
Greenpeace has been particularly focused on the Wakashio oil spill since August last year, calling for justice for the marine environment and the local community in Mauritius. Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs have been calling for major reforms to international shipping, where the industry and shipping regulators have continued to ignore calls to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and the industry’s dependence on oil in order to comply with the Paris Climate Accords.
Speaking to Forbes, Greenpeace’s Melita Steele, explained why the Wakashio investigation was so important for the organization. “The Wakashio oil spill is a tragedy that continues to directly affect the safety, health and economic well being of the people of Mauritius. It is also negatively impacting on one of the world’s most precious biodiversity hotspots in the Indian Ocean.”
She went on to explain why it was so important for Greenpeace to find out the truth behind what happened with the Wakashio, and urged radical changes to business practices in the shipping and oil industries. “The oil spill and the damage it brings to Mauritians and to the ocean is the result of our reliance on fossil fuels and a shipping industry that is dragging its feet instead of decarbonizing swiftly, in line with the Paris Agreement. Drilling, transporting and burning fossil fuels drives the climate crisis, and Greenpeace continues to campaign for a future beyond fossil fuels. The secretive practices of both the shipping and oil industries must be exposed, along with any attempts at greenwashing.”
Local NGOs such as the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation estimate that the Wakashio oil spill was responsible for the deaths of nearly 100 whales and dolphins across the bays and coral lagoons of the Indian Ocean island, with 50 washing up on the shores of Mauritius just days after the oil spill. This has raised concerns among scientists around the world about just how acute and toxic the chemicals were in the low-sulfur fuel to cause this unusually high level of death to large marine animals. Tens of thousands of Mauritians have been exposed to the cancer-causing chemicals within the oil, which BP is accused of treating as a corporate secret, and in doing so, has further exacerbated the human health and environmental challenges on the island.
Not disclosing what chemicals were contained within BP’s fuel is not just corporate negligence, but a human rights violation, as the exposed population have been calling for proper medical assessments and accusing the Japanese operator of ignoring the local community’s needs for the past six months. Japanese vessel operator, MOL, has failed to support proper medical assessments locally, and are widely viewed in Mauritius and Japan as ‘greenwashing’ the Wakashio oil spill with a series of superficial gestures such as handing out free t-shirts and teaching the paper-folding art of origami in local schools, rather than conducting any serious scientific, environmental or health work.
This is not MOL’s first brush with a major ship incident and oil spill. MOL has experienced several major ship sinkings (e.g., MOL Comfort 2013), emission violations (e.g., California’s Port of Oakland 2017 and 2018), lost containers and maritime accidents (e.g., ONE Apus 2020), drunken crew (e.g., Nippon Maru 2018), mysterious explosions (e.g., MV M Star 2010) and oil spills (e.g., Bright Artemis 2006). This is in spite of significant marketing efforts to attempt to show how prepared MOL was for such an eventuality.
Indeed, MOL’s parent company, Japanese giant Mitsui, has been entwined with BP for many years and is one of the largest producer of fossil fuels on the planet (especially the low-sulfur heavy ship fuel that is being blamed for a spate of ship engine failures around the world). Mitsui was a joint investor with BP in the field that caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, had received a record fine from U.S. regulators and had paid over $1 billion to indemnify itself from future damages. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway last August revealed that they had taken a 5% stake in Mitsui.
BP had appointed a new CEO, Bernard Looney, last February with promises that the company will show more responsible corporate leadership. It went on to make a widely promoted pledge in June that it had taken a revised and stronger position on global biodiversity protection. These promises now look hollow as Government agencies around the world who had been asked to help by the Government of Mauritius, expressed their concerns about BP’s undermining of the Mauritius investigation just a month after this pledge, and BP’s failure to collaborate and continued silence over the oil spill. With the rear of the Wakashio still on Mauritius’ coral reefs, this information is still critical to understand the risks being faced. BP should have kept samples of the oil for several months after the refueling in line with industry practice, but to date, have not provided these to authorities in Mauritius.
With new evidence that both London-based IMO and ITOPF (where BP is a Board Member) were both aware that BP was the supplier of the oil and that this oil was faulty, and that the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs deliberately ignored meeting with the local community and local environmental NGOs during his visit to Mauritius in December, there are serious concerns about the extent of industry-regulator collusion, and how high this cover up now goes.
A damming trail of evidence
The documents came to light after suspicions were raised over how the oil spill response was being handled in Mauritius. The Wakashio’s grounding was the first spill that involved the experimental VLSFO low-sulfur ship fuel that is now in 70% of all ships around the world. It was a rushed regulation by the UN’s Shipping Agency, the London-based International Maritime Organization (IMO), that was designed to head off criticism that global shipping was not meeting climate targets.
The Mauritius oil spill revealed for the first time that not only had the IMO failed to ensure appropriate safety testing was conducted of the fuel, but that it had no way of overseeing the thousands of different chemical cocktails that were being mixed and pushed through ship’s engines based on the IMO’s own regulations, and which industry analysts described as a ‘witches brew’ of chemicals. In the last 12 months, the IMO had made the oceans a Wild West for shipping regulation, and increased the risk of major oil spills around the world.
Several major international environment groups like Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, WWF, Ocean Conservancy, the Clean Arctic Alliance, have all been campaigning for shipping to use cleaner fuels and pushing for greater environmental transparency in shipping, amid concerns of poorly designed and enforced regulations, and a regulator largely seen as acting on behalf of the shipping industry rather than in humanity’s common interest as the UN charter requires.
Several Governments from around the world had immediately offered assistance to Mauritius, such as the United States through its ocean agency NOAA, the British Government through its fisheries and environment unit CEFAS, the French Government through its water pollution unit Cedre, and Australia through its Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). Surprisingly all four organizations with global oil spill expertise were sidelined during the oil spill response and clean up, and scientists from the world’s leading oil spill analysis laboratory, Dr Chris Reddy at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, was forced to rely on samples that had been in the ocean for ten days.
Such a sidelining of a powerful group of nations offering their assistance, has never happened before in any major oil spill.
The IMO knew about BP’s faulty oil almost immediately
When it was clear the Wakashio was breaking up, The UN shipping regulator, London-based International Maritime Organization (IMO) appointed a representative to co-ordinate the oil spill response in Mauritius, including exerting its influence over other UN agencies in the country. This effectively gave the IMO full control over international involvement in the oil spill to prevent outside oil experts from becoming involved.
The IMO’s representative, Mathew Sommerville, became infamous in Mauritius and other leading trade publications, such as gCaptain, for a series of controversial comments about the oil spill, and making factually incorrect health comments, such likening the oil to skin cream. Amid dealing with the global coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization had to then intervene in Mauritius on September 12 to issue an emergency rebuttal, expressing their concerns about the IMO’s inaccurate statements, and highlighting the long term health risks that the population of Mauritius faced with exposure to low-sulfur VLSFO ship fuel oil.
The IMO knew BP was responsible for the oil
From the moment they had arrived in Mauritius on August 11, the IMO was immediately aware that the oil was from BP, as seen in email correspondence and attachments sent at the time by the IMO on August 19, before the front section of the Wakashio, that contained the main fuel tanks, was controversially sunk on August 24.
On September 15, the IMO confirmed that its representative Matthew Sommerville was operating with a full team supporting him from the IMO’s Headquarters in London. “The IMO Secretariat is also supporting the response [to the Wakashio oil spill], by providing backstopping to the IMO expert in the field at the time of his deployment, and has been maintaining close liaison with the affected country, the flag State and technical partners throughout in order to provide support and assistance, as required.”
According to the website of the IMO, the 300-person Secretariat of the IMO is headed by the Secretary General of the IMO, South Korean national Kitack Lim, who had personally led the introduction of VLSFO fuel into global shipping as the principle thrust of his election platform as Secretary General of the IMO (he was first elected for a four year term starting in 2016 after the Paris Climate Talks, and again in December 2019 as VLSFO fuel was being introduced into the market as a way to deflect attention from global shipping’s high levels of greenhouse gas emissions).
Since the oil spill in August, the IMO has repeatedly attempted to undermine journalist enquiries into their activities concerning the Wakashio, offering to set up on-the record interviews, requiring questions days in advance, and then cancelling these interviews at the last moment abruptly, when they realized how sensitive the topics were. The IMO also harassed and used several underhand tricks to sabotage the inquiry among other international media outlets who were covering the Wakashio oil spill.
Until now, the Secretary General of the IMO, Kitack Lim, has failed to account for his organizations’ actions in Mauritius that played a direct role in undermining and sabotaging the inquiry into the oil spill, much of this having been captured by the local Mauritian media. Unlike other responsible public institutions funded by taxpayers, the IMO does not have a Freedom of Information policy, making them one of the most secretive UN Agencies, amid concerns of corruption and industry collusion at every level.
This raises questions for the UN Secretary General, why he has not ensured that all UN Agencies operate with internationally acceptable Freedom of Information and Transparency policies to avoid industry collusion and corruption within the UN system. In December, investigative reporter Toby McIntosh revealed that half of the UN’s 27 Bodies do not have Freedom of Information policies. Toby McIntosh is a Senior Adviser to the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), one of the world’s leading investigative journalism networks.
A damning report by corruption-watchdog Transparency International in 2018 into the operations of the IMO had accused the UN organization of being responsible for the “partial privatisation of intergovernmental policy-making in shipping,” with trade organizations outnumbering environmental NGOs five to one, and several Government delegations replaced by private companies to determine international shipping policy.
The involvement of the IMO in the cover up of faulty fuel produced by BP, now reveals how serious the opaqueness of the IMO has become and that real lives have been put at risk (there have been four deaths so far in Mauritius, associated with the Wakashio salvage operation that was overseen by vessel insurer, ‘Japan P&I Club’ and Dutch giant Boskalis’ subsidiary, Smit Salvage).
Bunker Delivery Note from BP
Emails and documents show that the IMO were aware that the VLSFO oil was supplied by BP and that IMO representatives had access to the ship’s files which gave details of the BP fueling operation in Singapore.
The details on the Bunker Delivery Note (which is a legal requirement by the IMO and serves as a receipt for ship fuel, including evidence that samples were taken) is corroborated with satellite tracking analysis that had already performed to identify the vessels that had been used for the refueling operations of the Wakashio.
What happened to BP’s Singapore sample of the Wakashio oil?
When a ship is fueled, oil majors keep samples of these fuel for at least three months for operational and commercial reasons. This is to retain as evidence in case of a case of faulty oil (as has been found with the Wakashio). Often, there are issues with certain parameters of the oil (such as Sulfur Dioxide concentration), and the oil major needs evidence to show that its batch of oil was not contaminated when placed in the ship’s engine.
This means that BP should have safely stored the samples from the Wakashio refueling on July 13 and 14 in Singapore. However, these samples have not been sent to Mauritius or analyzed to support Mauritius in its investigation.
BP were aware since August that their oil was likely to be investigated, following outreach by international Government agencies who had been appointed to support Mauritius and had made formal contact with BP. Forbes had also reached out to BP on October 12, less than three months since the refueling operation. The samples should have been kept safe.
In October, BP had declined to comment or respond to the specific questions about what happened to the samples that were collected for operational reasons.
Why would BP not be willing to collaborate in the investigation or offer its samples to support Mauritius with the oil spill response?
BP have been approached for a comment and explanation of what happened to the oil samples and what actions they took to support Mauritius (and the agencies appointed by Mauritius) to assist with the oil spill response.
Satellites confirm refueling location
Satellite analysis had shown that it was the Singapore-registered Pearl Mimosa who had been responsible for the Wakashio fueling in the Port of Singapore in Area AEBA, in an overnight refueling operation between July 13 and 14. This is now corroborated with the Bunker Delivery Note documentation in the IMO’s possession.
The Port of Singapore had been approached several times by Forbes last year to clarify whether they had reached out to the supplier to help Mauritius with its investigation, but chose not to respond to those questions.
Satellite analysis reveals that the Pearl Mimosa, used by BP, has been particularly active across the Port of Singapore.
The analysis above reveals that it sourced fuel from the large, purpose-built Petrochemical Hub on Sebarok Island (far left) and the red arrows indicate where it slowed for refueling operations throughout June and July 2020.
Satellite analysis of the Pearl Mimosa show that it did indeed make contact with the Wakashio at the times and dates specified by the BP Bunker Delivery Note, and was the vessel through which the faulty fuel was transferred.
MOL was aware that BP’s fuel was faulty
Japanese shipping giant, MOL, is the world’s second largest shipping company. It operates almost 1000 vessels across the world’s oceans at any one time, and is supposed to have a modern 24/7 high tech operations center to avoid ship groundings like the Wakashio, which MOL claimed to regularly run practice drills for.
Released documents also show that MOL was aware that the fuel supplied by BP was faulty and MOL had to issue specific instructions for how the engineers should handle this oil, which deviated from the engine manufacturers’ guidelines.
The documents, entitled ‘MOL Fuel Quality Testing System’ reveal that the oil samples were tested within days of departure from Singapore and several dangerous flaws had been identified. It was at this moment when the samples arrived in MOL’s laboratories for testing that the Wakashio then deviated from its pre-agreed path and headed directly toward Mauritius. Was this the moment that the seriousness of the fuel flaws had become known?
VLSFO fuel was known to have five properties that posed particular hazards to ship engines. MOL had been aware from previous refueling stops and bunker fuel analysis that low sulfur fuels from Singapore posed specific risks to the vessels it operated. Yet, it continued to fuel its ships using this high-risk low-sulfur fuel.
The five VLSFO properties that posed a particular risk involved the thickness or Viscosity of the oil, the ability for the oil to combust in the chamber (the CCAI index) and the amount of damaging metal sand (called Al and Si Catalytic Fines) that exist in the fuel. Additional issues with VLSFO meant that the oil was a particular risk in colder temperatures where the oil clumped together in plasticine-like lumps (called wax deposits) that can clog up fuel lines, important oil purifiers and the engine itself. This would have been the case in the cooler winter waters of the Southern Indian Ocean when the Wakashio was travelling across it. In addition, VLSFO was found to be particularly unstable and changed chemical properties within days or weeks of being produced (rather than months), meaning that VLSFO was particularly hazardous for long ocean-bound voyages, as the Wakashio was embarking on to and from Brazil.
The ‘MOL Fuel Quality Testing System’ analysis reveals that the fuel on the Wakashio had already exceeded at least three of these critical safety parameters.
- The VLSFO fuel from BP had CCAIs at 858.2. The Swedish Club ship insurer revealed that CCAI levels between 850 and 890 are considered dangerous and could lead to engine failure as the fuel would have issues combusting in one of the six main chambers of the ship’s engine.
- The BP fuel had Viscosity that was at 35.5 cST (at 50C), which MOL identified as being too low for the safe operation of the ship. VLSFO fuel in general had been found to be riskier as ship oil viscosity plummeted from 160 cST in November 2019 to 100 cST by March 2020 (left hand scale in the VLSFO viscosity chart). 100 cST was already considered dangerously low for ship engines designed for thick peanut-butter like fuel oil. To have Viscosity levels at a third of this was particularly hazardous. Such runny oil – likely a product of mixing with jet fuel – could lead to clogging of critical filters, fuel lines and machinery needed for the safe operation of the ship.
- The amount of ‘metal sand’ contained in the Wakashio’s fuel (Al and Si) was at 32 mg per kg of fuel. This is more than double the safe operating levels. Major engine manufacturers require the concentration of this metallic sand (called Catalytic Fines made up of Al and Si) to be 15 parts per million (i.e., 15 mg of Al and Si for every kg of fuel). Such high levels of cat fines would have likely led to cracked piston rings, scratched cylinders and even broken piston heads. Leaks in the piston chambers are what could lead to the phenomenon of ‘runaway’ and ‘out of control’ engines, that a ship’s crew would be unable to stop or do anything about. This could be one of the main reasons for why the Wakashio ran aground in Mauritius.
The Wakashio changed direction the day after BP fuel samples arrived in MOL’s laboratories on 20 July 2020
What is even more concerning was that the Wakashio changed its direction the day after the samples had arrived in MOL’s laboratories for testing on July 20. On July 21 at 2am local time, the Wakashio had made the fateful decision to turn toward Mauritius. Was this when the risks were discovered with this batch of faulty low sulfur fuel, and the Wakashio was trying to find a safer location closer to land? Mauritius was the closest coastal state at that point.
MOL has so far failed to provide a credible explanation for this change of direction on July 21 (and conspicuously failed to address it). Instead, MOL’s CEO, Junichiro Ikeda, attempted to deflect attention by looking at a smaller navigation adjustment on July 23 just before the vessel entered Mauritius’ EEZ, that was negligible compared to the 13 degree change in direction on July 21.
MOL were approached for a comment on what they were aware of about flaws in the oil and the reason for the change in direction on July 21, but have not responded.
Wakashio’s engines had been built by Mitsui
The reason why MOL should have known the impact of the faulty BP oil on the Wakashio’s engines was that the engines had been built by another one of its sister companies, $8 billion revenue a year Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding (Mitsui E&S). Mitsui E&S is one of the world’s biggest ship engine builders, installing engines in over 2000 vessels around the world, and are Japan’s largest ship engine manufacturer.
MOL’s confusing guidance to combat BP’s faulty fuel
It would be an expensive liability for Mitsui if it was to be found that the combination of BP’s faulty fuel and guidance by MOL that exceeded manufacturer’s recommendations, had led to Mitsui E&S engine troubles, and the subsequent grounding and oil spill.
The guidance issued to the Wakashio crew includes several warnings and suggestions:
- “The CCAI level is high in case of medium speed engine. Some ignition delay of engine is considered.”
- “Analysis Results shows MOL Required Specification level over.”
- “The viscosity level is too low.”
- “Take precautions against vapor lock on the fuel line, and adjust the heating temperature if necessary.”
- “As for medium speed engine, keep an eye on the rise in the Exh. Gas temperature due to a poor combustion.”
- “If the Exh. Gas temperature rises abnormality, reduce it by limiting engine output or take measures such as dosing effective fuel additives.”
The last guidance is particularly troubling. It implies that the Wakashio’s engineers, who were already overworked and overextended because the crew had not been replaced during the pandemic, were now being asked to perform essentially giant chemistry experiments on the ocean. Rising abnormal exhaust gas temperatures is a major fire and explosion hazard.
Instructions for the Wakashio to ‘dose effective fuel additives’ or ‘limit engine output’ is akin to asking the the engineers to mix additional chemicals, without clarifying how much additional chemicals and which sort is needed. The crew were being asked to use ‘trial and error’ to run the ship due to the faulty fuel, and risk slowing the vessel’s speed down in the middle of the ocean.
Video of Wakashio’s engine room leaked
An 18 minute video had already been leaked of the Wakashio’s engines as it departed Singapore and the day after it grounded on Mauritius’ reefs, although notably, the critical mechanical parts (such as the pistons, piston rings, purifier and filters) were left out of the video.
For additional context, Mitsui E&S are the same large business group that had installed ship engines into power stations in Mauritius, and led to a $120 million major corruption scandal involving a wholly-owned Mitsui E&S subsidiary (Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor or BWSC), just a month prior to the Wakashio grounding, and the resignation of the Mauritian Deputy Prime Minister.
If faulty BP fuel was being burnt at the controversial St Louis Power Station, what other risks were created for Mauritius and power stations around the world installed by Mitsui E&S and BWSC, that rely on faulty low-sulfur ship fuel oil? BWSC was responsible for installing 184 power plants in 54 countries for Mitsui E&S.
Will there now be an increase in maintenance or ‘wear and tear’ issues to important power station engine components (such as the pistons or the oil purifiers)? If so, who would be held liable if it was the fuel that was found to be faulty and the root cause of these additional maintenance expenses in the 184 power plants around the world?
Storage time of BP oil in Singapore tanks
With VLSFO being particularly unstable, the length of time that BP’s fuel was kept in storage tanks also becomes very relevant. The longer an oil is kept since its date of production (whether the jet fuel component or the ship fuel part), the more volatile it becomes. This could lead to its chemical properties changing mid-voyage as microbes start to multiply in the oil. Neither BP nor the Port of Singapore would confirm how long the oil had remained in storage tanks in Singapore before fueling the Wakashio.
The documents obtained by Greenpeace also reveal that samples of the BP fuel from the time of the fueling should have existed on board the Wakashio for scientists to conduct tests on them. It is incredible that six months after the oil spill, these samples have not been thoroughly analyzed by independent scientists, as the samples are critical to understand the long term human and environmental consequences of the oil.
Investigators ‘formally stonewalled by BP Marine’
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Government of Mauritius had reached out to Government agencies around the world to assist with the characterization of the oil. This was widely shared news in statements made in the Mauritian parliament and in press communiques that were issued by relevant Ministers. Expertise from SGS in Mauritius, Australia’s AMSA and France’s Cedre were sought to characterize the oil that had been sourced from BP in Singapore.
Each oil has a distinctive set of properties, making its signature unique based on the engine it was used in. There are a few hubs in the world that hold libraries of these oil signatures.
With the Wakashio, it was the first time that VLSFO oil had been spilled. This new fuel had substantially more lubricants (at least 20 tons, or the equivalent weight of ten elephants) and other toxic chemicals that makes VLSFO oil spills particularly lethal. Indeed, the IMO representative revealed that the 20 tons of lubricant oil of unknown chemicals remained in the rear (stern) of the Wakashio that still sits on Mauritius’ reefs. Additional lubricants had to be added to ship engines due to the abrasive qualities of low sulfur fuel oil. These lubricants are particularly toxic, and turn many oil spills into harmful chemical spills.
None of the world’s leading public laboratories had been regularly testing this type of low sulfur VLSFO oil despite 70% of global shipping having this in their engines. The global shipping and oil industry had been largely left alone to its own devices, and trusted to be responsible actors. So it was important for Mauritius as well as international Government agencies to understand what the shipping and oil industry had been putting into ships for the best part of a year.
For the oil fingerprinting, U.S. scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution had to rely on samples that had been in the ocean for more than 10 days, and in a highly unusual move, had publicly called for fresher samples to be sent to them. French scientists at Cedre, British scientists at CEFAS and Australian Maritime experts at AMSA had all tried to assist Mauritius at around the same time, but correspondence reveals they all suffered the same formal ‘stonewalling’ by BP.
Notably, Japan remained quiet about properties of the low-sulfur oil used, even though their Government rushed into Mauritius with over 20 ‘oil spill experts’ from Japan. Somehow, these Japanese scientists missed some of the most foundational steps needed in an oil spill response – the oil characterization. Was this more than just negligence?
Wall of silence from BP
A look through the cache of Government memos reveal how BP obstructed their investigation. These documents from Governments agencies around the world highlight the extent of obstruction by BP, which were interpreted as a formal wall of silence from the company not to support the investigation into the oil spill. One memo went as far as saying “We have been formally stonewalled by BP Marine.”
During major oil spills, it is customary for oil majors like BP to support in scientific and technical efforts in order to minimize the human health and environmental impact of the spill. To be seen as formally blocking and participation when the oil fingerprinting was known to be critical, is seen as particularly damming. It has left responders guessing what the toxins within the oil could be, at a time when nearly 100 dolphins and whales were believed to have been killed by the spill.
Other memos from Government agencies who had been called by Mauritius to help, reveal their concerns that BP was putting its own corporate interests ahead of the health of the exposed population of Mauritius and the environment. “They [BP] want nothing to do with any thoughts they might in some way be liable – Deepwater Horizon has them very scared.”
BP faced over $65 billion expenses in responding to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP’s partner, Mitsui (the parent company of the Wakashio’s operator and a joint investor in the project) paid BP over $1 billion to indemnify itself from further damages, but were still forced to pay a record water pollution fine by U.S. Regulators.
Even more troubling was that as early as August, international government agencies were concerned that critical evidence was being selectively removed from the Wakashio. With access to the Wakashio being strictly controlled at the time, this raises very serious questions about which organizations were involved, and their motivations to hide critical evidence from authorities in Mauritius. With BP being particularly obstructive, this has added a new twist into the Wakashio saga. One memo from August read, “Trying to locate the specifics of the bunkering (suspected to be BP Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil from Singapore) but BP very closed off and bunker notes and documents missing from vessel. BP not helpful due to liability.”
‘Silence and obstruction’
In a cache of documents from Australia that Greenpeace obtained, a trail of correspondence reveals that officials were immediately concerned that a cover up was taking place. By August 30, scientists had already identified that critical information was being kept from scientists in Mauritius. A memo shared among a large group of Australian scientists from the public and private sector who had come forward to support the Mauritius oil spill effort, read, “For all of us in the science and technical loop – the responders, the drift modellers, the impacts assessment, the forward scientific monitoring experts, etc. – we are all missing the most key piece of information – the oil character.”
This showed how critical the information on the oil character was to the hundreds of qualified oil spill specialists who had been lined up to support Mauritius around the world. It further reiterates the concern that the fuel was known to be faulty, and that several powerful corporate entities did not want this information to be released. They were willing to do this at the expense of a rare biodiversity hotspot, and the health of tens of thousands of responders who had been exposed to the oil through fumes in the air and contact with the oil in the water.
On August 18, Australian officials were sufficiently concerned about the oil. “The oil is toxic to humans as one of its major components will be a mixture (as much as 30-50%) aromatic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS) of various sorts, all of which are highly acutely and chronically toxic to people and marine life. If not removed from the marine environment, any remaining oil will take a long time to break down and become small sources of long-term chronic ecotoxicity.”
Australian agencies were unambiguous with how they felt about this obstruction by the IMO and the large corporations involved on the ground in Mauritius.
“All in all, the silence and obstruction on getting to find out about the spilled oil is one of the key lessons from this incident.”
The Australian Government Agencies were even more specific about their concerns about the conduct of the Japan P&I Club and the spiller (Japanese shipping giant MOL and Nagashiki Shipping) in undermining the investigation in Mauritius.
One of Australia’s lead scientists at their Maritime Safety Agency went on to say on August 30, “So without being able to know what the oil was prior to spilling, where it went (other than the obvious black sludge) either by modelling or sampling, what resources it hit, how toxic it was (and remains), the P&I and the spiller are building a string case to minimise any damages or compensation claims.”
It is important to note that one in five of the Board of the Japan P&I Club are made up of executives from the Wakashio’s operator, MOL, including the CEO of MOL, Junichiro Ikeda.
The Japan P&I Club have refused to answer any questions from the media about their conduct in Mauritius, and remain unaccountable from any public scrutiny. Officials from the Government of Japan have also avoided holding Japanese corporations to account, saying on November 29 that their mandate is limited to only scientific work, despite having more than 20 specialists on the ground in Mauritius.
Evidence was burnt
International scientists also expressed their alarm that someone in Mauritius took a decision to ‘burn’ or ‘sell’ the oil, rather than conduct a detailed analysis of the oil. The importance of analyzing the oil had been highlighted in the earliest days of the oil spill as one of the most crucial steps to have taken.
On August 30, scientists observed in frustration that the: “Salvage efforts appear to have mixed the oils coming off the ship, and much of it has already been sold or burnt.”
This is a highly damning statement by a leading G20 maritime safety agency about the activities of the IMO, ITOPF, the Japan P&I Club and the Japanese scientists on the ground in Mauritius.
For all the talk about how progressive BP, MOL, Japan P&I Club, ITOPF and the IMO claim to be on environmental protection and responsible shipping, it is clear they have developed a two tier system of how these organizations treat poorer nations compared to if such a spill happened in the waters of a wealthier nation such as France in La Reunion or Australia. Not one of these organizations have responded to media questions or accounted for their actions in Mauritius.
The BP-Mitsui Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010
In 2010, the worst oil spill in the U.S. occurred with a blowout at the Macondo oil well that was being developed by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The parent company of MOL, Mitsui, was a 10% shareholder in the field through one of their subsidiaries, MOEX. They were listed as one of the defendants in the U.S. Government case. Mitsui, through MOEX, ended up paying BP over $1 billion to limit their liability, and the Deepwater Horizon spill ended up costing BP over $65 billion in clean up and penalties alone. Mitsui also received a record $90 million fine by the U.S. Justice Department for breaches of the Clean Water Act.
A decade later, both BP and another Mitsui subsidiary (MOL), find themselves at the center of yet another controversial oil spill, this time in Mauritius.
Just like the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, it was a spill caused by risky business practices that continued to operate vessels that they knew had faulty fuel on board. Even worse, both BP, Mitsui, and a series of public entities connected to both (the IMO, ITOPF, Port of Singapore, Panama Maritime Authorities and the Japanese Government) were all fully aware of the risks that VLSFO low sulfur fuel posed to international shipping.
The response to the Wakashio reveals how extensive the cover up was, and the impunity with which the global shipping industry is being allowed to operate across the world’s oceans. If the very UN Agency (the IMO) charged with regulating shipping is unable to perform its role due to strong conflicts of interest, then a new governance model is required for with global shipping.
It has to be a regulatory regime where there is a clear arms-length relationship between oil and shipping companies and regulators. The era of industry capture is over – certainly for a large UN Agency.
BP’s hollow biodiversity promise
In June last year, BP had made a bold announcement that it was taking a new position on biodiversity protection. This came as world leaders were gathering to announce tough new measures to avoid catastrophic biodiversity collapse and a mass extinction from happening around the world. BP welcomed a new CEO and promised a new era of a changed and more responsible company.
However, within a month of such an announcement, faulty oil from BP had led to the grounding of the Wakashio into a network of internationally protected nature reserves. These nature reserves contained dozens of the last remaining species not found anywhere else on the planet.
The attitude of executives at BP to decide to cover up what chemicals were mixed with the low-sulfur fuel rather than proactively support the Government and citizens of Mauritius reveals where their corporate priorities lie. Profits continue to trump people or the planet.
BP were aware since August that their oil had been on the Wakashio and that there were ongoing investigations to try and conduct an analysis to better understand the risk. BP had been approached for an explanation of their conduct but have not yet responded.
Certainly six months on, serious questions remain for BP. Tens of thousands of Mauritian citizens are complaining that they did not received a full health assessment of their exposure to the harmful chemicals in the oil, and conservationists at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation responsible for overseeing some of the world’s rarest plants, birds, reptiles, insects and corals, have not received a risk assessment from BP to assist in their biodiversity protection.
BP have been approached for a comment on this story, and have not yet responded.
Collecting samples of stern from Mauritius’ reefs
It is not too late to collect samples of the oil from the fuel lines and the engine room in order to perform the oil fingerprinting analysis.
The stern of the Wakashio remains on Mauritius’ reefs and will likely be there until Spring.
Samples of the oil and lubricants could still be taken and provided to laboratories around the world, in addition to receiving samples from BP Marine in Singapore.
It would also allow the salvage team (China-based salvage company, Lianyungang Dali Underwater Engineering) to conduct an assessment of the engine room to see how serious the condition of the pistons, piston rings, purifiers, filters, fuel lines and storage tankers were in due to the low-sulfur fuel.
What did the IMO and ITOPF know?
The revelation of documentation showing that ITOPF and the IMO were fully aware of the source of the oil, and were not providing assistance is deeply troubling.
Especially as it appears that the IMO had prevented officials from Australia, the U.S., U.K, France, Canada from supporting scientists in Mauritius.
London-based ITOPF were supposed to be the organization responsible for coordinating and providing ‘independent advice’ to countries suffering oil spills. Here it can be seen that they were equally culpable for serious omissions. There are also clear conflicts of interests with both BP and MOL on the Board of Directors of ITOPF and with a clear incentive to reduce any exposure it may subject these two companies to.
Conducting a clean up operation without oil fingerprinting information is akin to performing surgery on a patient without conducting an analysis of the blood. If this was to happen in the medical profession, the doctors responsible would lose their license to operate.
Who holds the United Nations body and ITOPF to account? How many more oil spills and shipping disasters have been covered up in this way?
The financial arrangements between the vessel insurer, Japan P&I Club, the IMO and ITOPF have not been made transparent, as their actions will have serious consequences for Mauritius for decades to come.
ITOPF and the Japan P&I Club have refused to respond to any media inquiry since the oil spill, despite their prominent position in coordinating critical components in the oil spill response, and emails that show how heavily they were involved in the response.
Greenpeace calls for full, independent investigation into the Wakashio oil spill
Now in possession of damming internal memos that reveal the extent of industry collusion, Greenpeace is calling for a full and independent investigation into the conduct and response of international organizations involved with the vessel in Mauritius.
Melita Steele said, “Should Forbes’ recent findings on the involvement of international regulators in the cover-up of the oil spill in the early days of August 2020 prove correct, this dereliction of duty must culminate with those responsible being investigated and being held accountable.”
She also said that Greenpeace vows to continue fighting for justice over the oil spill. “Greenpeace continues to stand with the people of Mauritius and all others affected by fossil fuels, a toxic relic of the 20th century from which we must finally break free.”
The oil trifecta: Human Rights, Corruption and Industry Collusion
The oil industry cannot shake itself of the reputation associated with it. Human rights abuse, corruption and industry collusion.
The oil industry is in its twilight days. Rather than going away gracefully as other industries once did when a superior technology came along, the industry continues to not only cause environmental devastation, but has exacerbated this with attempts to cover up the environmental crime.
This has led to human health ticking time bomb in Mauritius, which those who brought the toxins to the Indian Ocean island have been rapidly trying to shirk their responsibility for. The Wakashio is opening the world’s eyes to the extent of industry collusion, human rights abuse and corruption that continues to be prevalent in the oil and shipping industries, and involve some of the most powerful organizations in the world.
Wakashio was not a victimless crime
The oil spill in Mauritius was not a victimless crime. Tens of thousands of volunteers and local fishing communities were exposed to the toxins of the Wakashio. These toxins have drained through the beaches and mangroves (where lagoon fish breed) and will remain in Mauritius’ waters for decades to come. The toxins are rising up the biological food chain, without the proper monitoring or assessment of what chemicals were mixed to form the VLSFO fuel.
Yet the content of these toxins remain a mystery, a corporate secret. This is a case of BP putting corporate interests ahead of human lives. Would such conduct be acceptable if this oil spill had occurred on the banks of the River Thames, the Great Barrier Reef or in Tokyo Bay?
There needs to be one global standard through which the shipping industry is regulated – not one for wealthier nations, and another for poorer nations.
The Wakashio epitomizes all the reasons why both the oil and the shipping industry (including the regulators) need radical reform. If the new CEO of BP Bernard Looney, is serious about transforming the company and the industry, then he can start with articulating what changes he wants to see in the oil and shipping industry to ensure a cleaner and safer future.
In the meantime, Mauritius continues to wait for ecological and human rights justice for the toxins spilled in its coral lagoons by a ship that should never have been there in the first place.
BP, Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), ITOPF, Japan P&I Club, AMSA have all been approached for comments to this story.