Was plastics being mixed with oil in Mauritius spill to produce a horror 'Frankenstein fuel'?
Fresh concerns have been raised by international experts about the type of oil spilled into the coral lagoons of Mauritius in August, and which continues to impact marine life in the region.
Leading international scientists from both France and the United States late last week highlighted the highly ‘complex,’ ‘unusual’ and ‘surprising’ traits of the oil, which they have never seen in a major oil spill before. They have urgently called for samples of the original oil from the Wakashio to be sent to laboratories for further testing.
Speculation continues to circulate about the mysterious oil that was in the Wakashio and which caused the environmental catastrophe in Mauritius this summer. It is likely to leave a devastating legacy for decades to come. Once more, questions are being raised about what could have been mixed with the ship fuel oil and why proper oil fingerprinting has still not been conducted.
One new theory emerging is that this could be an experimental form of the new Plastics-to-Fuel oil. If that was the case, the health and environmental consequences could be devastating to those in Mauritius who were in contact with these experimental chemicals. This would be much more serious than just an oil spill as it involves hazardous new and unknown chemicals.
Hence it is even more urgent that the right international expertise is allowed to conduct a robust analysis in full transparency and with independent scientific rigor (not linked to any parties involved with the oil spill).
Secrecy by unaccountable international ‘advisers’
The Mauritius oil spill response that is being financed by the Japanese insurers of the Wakashio, has been notable for its highly unusual and opaque approach, attracting attention about why the need for so much secrecy. It has raised concerns whether Japan’s corporate interests have been bullying officials on the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius not to conduct appropriate scientific testing.
Even the ITOPF and the IMO, who were brought in to advise on the oil spill response somehow missed their primary role which was to ensure the oil characterization took place. Both organizations have repeatedly avoided questions on their role in Mauritius. Not the transparency expected from international organizations in 2020, unless something untoward was going on.
In major oil spills, cleanups would never have begun unless the basic characteristics of the oil are known - a process that takes mere hours. Each oil behaves very uniquely in different climates and regions, and even the UN’s shipping regulator, the IMO, admitted in August that they did not know how this oil would behave in Mauritian waters given the Southern Hemisphere’s winter conditions. That would make it all the more important to run an analysis of the characteristics of the oil before beginning any cleanup operation. This would be even more important given the acute toxicity that has led to over 50 whales and dolphins dying along Mauritius’ coast in the days following the oil spill, and thousands of sea creatures turning up dead along Mauritius’ coast.
This would also be of particular interest to the French island of Reunion - which is part of the European Union - given the location of the sinking of the Wakashio, that poses further risks to Mauritius’ sister island.
So, what does the Wakashio’s Japanese insurer, Japan P&I Club know about the oil, that has allowed it to fund a cleanup so secretive, that it has attracted local and international condemnation from the world’s leading oil spill scientists?
One theory is that the oil could have been mixed with plastics, forming a toxic new chemical cocktail. In recent years, there has been a series of experiments to mix plastics with oil to produce new forms of ‘Frankenstein fuels.’
These hybrid fuels if spilled, would be highly toxic – much more so than if it had been ordinary heavy oil ship fuel.
Plastics are hydrocarbons, that are contained in a different format – solids, rather than the thick, peanut-butter like consistency of heavy ship oil. Burning this plastic releases energy, in the same way that burning heavy fuel oil does.
However, it is the toxic cocktail of chemicals that are mixed in to break down the plastics, that would make this chemical soup particularly lethal if leaked.
The Plastics-to-Fuels market
6.3 billion tons of plastic have been generated since plastics were first invented 60 years ago in the aftermath of WW2 as a ‘miracle’ new product. It’s success became its downfall, with single use plastics encroaching into every aspect of day to day life, encouraging a ‘throw away’ consumer culture.
As a result, on current trajectory, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Despite increases in plastic recycling collections at homes, offices and municipal sites, less than 5% of this plastic is actually recycled, meaning there is a growing plastics waste problem sitting in landfills, warehouses, waterways and in our oceans for decades to come. It will take thousands of years to break down naturally. Much of this plastic is unable to be recycled or reused, despite the industry desperately attempting to find new uses for it.
Many Governments have been struggling with what to do with millions of tons of surplus single use plastics that have been collected in recycling efforts. Countries like China are increasingly rejecting plastics from Western nations that had been sending their waste products there. In recent years, there has been a rising mountain of unrecycled plastics being stored in warehouses around the world.
So the world has a major plastics problem, which has become even more visible in the past few years as environmental groups, such as the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and the Plastic Pollution Coalition, have raised the profile of the overuse of plastics in the global economy.
The same oil companies that produce plastics also produce heavy ship fuel products, and have been under increasing pressure in the last few years to develop solutions for this mounting plastics waste problem.
The plastics industry, knowing that pressure has been mounting against single use plastics, have been funding lobby groups to push forward the notion of a ‘Plastics-to-Fuels’ economy.
These sophisticated industry lobby groups have estimated that this new Plastics-to-Fuels industry could be worth $9 billion a year (with an additional $18 billion capital expenditure), generating almost 40,000 jobs in the US alone. For example, Shell is building one of the largest petrochemical plants in the US in Pennsylvania, specifically focused on producing over 1 million tons of plastic pellets a year. Given the global move away from single use plastics, this is a particularly surprising and controversial investment.
However, advocates of Plastics-to-Fuels solutions have never addressed the serious environmental consequences of these new chemical formulas if ever one was to leak, as could have been the case in Mauritius (only an oil fingerprint test can validate this).
Several leading universities around the world have been helping push this Plastics-to-Fuels sector. For example, the University of Swansea in the UK, University of California Irvine, Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, the US Department of Agriculture, Purdue University as well as private sector efforts, all of whom have conducted research in this area in the last few years.
No images of the Wakashio’s engines
The thinking had been that with a surplus of plastics in the world, mixing plastics with ship fuel could both solve the mounting plastics problem, and also allow the oil industry to recoup some of their investments in multi-billion dollar, large plastic plants.
As ship fuel is so much denser than car fuel, the plastics could be broken down chemically and added to ship fuel as part of the mixture without much visible difference. However, this could lead to serious engine damage.
With no images of the key components of the Wakashio’s engines being released, suspicions are already high about the cause of the crash, as the tell-tale signs for such a Frankenstein fuel would be quickly revealed. Since the grounding on July 25, neither the salvors, incident investigators or local authorities – who have both been on board since the grounding - have taken photos of the key engine parts, which would be seen as a major omission in any subsequent inquiry.
Smaller pieces of plastics, called nurdles, are extremely toxic if released in the ocean. Nurdles are similar to the microplastic beads often found in certain brands of shampoo and body wash, and which are appearing on beaches all around the world. Environmental groups like Scottish-based Fidra, have been organizing Nurdle Hunts around the world (currently over 5000 hunts) to highlight the extent of these risks.
There have already been major protests in the UK and Australia against new ‘Plastics-to-Fuels’ manufacturing plants, amid fears of their toxic impact, that these are still contributing to greenhouse gases, and will also detract from other meaningful investments in renewable energy.
Burning plastics as a cheap way out
While such hybrid fuels may get rid of the existence of the physical plastic, the plastic is still a hydrocarbon and burning such materials in a ship engine would still emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing toward global warming.
For oil industry executives, this would have been seen as the cheapest solution to get rid of all the surplus and unwanted plastics they had produced. But it is certainly not the most responsible.
Horrors of mixing plastics with ship oil
However, the full horrors of the devastation that a ship fuel spill with dissolved plastic could unleash has never been evaluated. It would be a combination of two of the worst possible products to be released into a dense population center and an important biodiversity hotspot. International scientists working on Plastics-to-Fuels products confirmed how serious this would be, but none wanted to appear on the record.
Former senior official with the US Department of Interior Official and oil spill response veteran, Rick Dawson, said, “This would be horrific if it was proven to be a hybrid of plastics and oil. Many of these substances would be controlled under RCRA in the United States. RCRA – the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – is a set of laws that govern the management of hazardous solid materials, as plastic nurdles is turning out to be. This is a piece of legislation designed for extremely hazardous materials. It is essential that the people of Mauritius understand what was spilled in their waters, and the potential harmful effects of this.”
The health consequences of plastic nurdles with a heavy oil spill would be too horrendous to imagine.
The risk of nurdles
In the ocean, plastics break down into micro or nano particles called nurdles. The size and shape of the nurdles make a huge impact on how toxic the tiny fragments of plastics could be. The smaller the pieces (to microscopic levels, invisible to the human eye), the greater the toxicity to a wider variety of animal and human organs. This is because there are more ways for these plastics particles to be absorbed into the human of wildlife bodies (the rate at which chemicals can be absorbed into human or animal bodies is called bioavailability).
tering the body, now, these toxins hitch a lift on the microscopic plastic beads and essentially get absorbed into the lungs and digestive systems of humans and wildlife.
The United Nations even held three days of expert hearings on this topic in June 2016, as part of a process to look at introducing new international laws against plastic pollution (particularly microplastics).
There are two chemicals that are a particularly deadly combination: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs (that are found in ship oil) and Bisphenol A or BPA (that is commonly used for water bottles and food containers).
Both could be found in a hybrid fuel of plastics and oil. These both have serious health consequences such as cancer, lung, brain, heart diseases, as well as long term and complex impacts on the reproductive organs. It is important to understand their impact if they were to have been mixed to produce experimental ship fuel.
The hormone-altering risks of oil spills combined with plastics
If spilled, these chemicals would have a significant impact on hormones and human and animal reproduction, including the sexual organs of both men and women. These group of toxins are known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.
The impact of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) were first revealed thirty years ago in 1991 by US scientist, Theo Colburn, and has since become an important part of the scientific work to track the impacts of major oil spills. The body of work by Colburn revealed for the first time the multi-generational risk of being exposed to particular chemicals associated with oil spills and plastics. Her award winning work, such as her book Chemically Induced Alterations in Sexual and Functional Development: The Wildlife/Human Connection, pioneered this new field and prompted strict laws to be written around the world protecting humans and wildlife from chemical and oil spills.
Since then, further scientific studies in Europe have shown that PAH chemicals are known to reduce male fertility by 20% through lower sperm count and smaller testes size. Female fertility have also been shown to be negatively impacted and abnormalities passed down to unborn (mainly male) children, thereby impacting another generation.
In studies on fish (e.g., Japanese Medaka Rice Fish), it was noticeable that for the first two generations, there was little identifiable impact, but in the third and fourth generation, fertility issues developed, leading to a 30% reduction in third generation fertilization rates then a further 20% reduction in fourth generation reproduction rates. This eventually led to a collapse of the population. There are additional risks along the food chain by consuming contaminated fish and marine life.
In addition to reproductive issues, the range of diseases from PAH and BPA exposure extends from lung disease, breast and prostate cancer, brain disease.
So the health consequences from exposure is serious, and needs to be treated with appropriate caution. In Mauritius, it is certain NGOs who have taken the lead in health benchmarking, raising questions about the role of the Wakashio’s insurer, the World Health Organization, as well as the Government of Mauritius.
Concerns for health of exposed population
The Mauritian district of Grand Port where the oil spill occurred has a population of 112,000. The oil spill directly impacted the town of Mahebourg with a population of 15,000. There are another 15,000 living in smaller villages along the 36 kilometer coast where PAHs have been detected in marine life and fishing is banned.
There were around 5000 volunteers, the Mauritian coastguard and Mauritius’ Special Mobile Force who supported the immediate cleanup operation and were exposed to the oil mixture in August. Many reported various health issues at the time. So there is at least 35,000 who could have been directly exposed to various degrees from the oil and chemicals.
The region is one of the most productive from a local fisheries perspective, including the large industrial aquaculture farms in the region that have been growing 3 million fish for sale abroad. Mahebourg has one of the largest local fish markets for domestic consumption with 5000 tons of fish caught and sold each year. In addition to risks of novel chemicals in the food chain, there is also the risk of exposure for tourists and visitors in the area from chemicals associated with the oil spill and any plastic nurdles.
125 square kilometers of the coral lagoon have been cordoned off since August following results from biological sampling of fish in the lagoon.
The potential impact of three toxic substances - ship oil, plastics and the additional chemicals added to the plastics and oil mixture - would make this oil spill a particularly lethal chemical cocktail soup, and would need many years to fully understand the impact.
Those who had been developing these hybrid fuels had only assumed they would be burned off in the ship’s exhaust vents, and never leaked into the marine environment. This was always one of the risks of such large ships having single hulls, a recommendation for non-oil tankers that was never acted upon by the IMO after the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
Such is the novelty of this oil, that several scientists have called for ‘set backs’ or designated areas where the pollution is not fully cleared in Mauritius, so the effects can be better studied over time to understand the potential impact on humans and wildlife. This is why the clean up approach undertaken by Japan P&I Club and Le Floch Depollution has been called ‘reckless and irresponsible’ by leading international and Mauritian scientists. These international organizations have been allowed to operate in Mauritius with no accountability or response to any questions posed by the international or local media, or even the local opposition parties in Mauritius.
Calls for transparency
With some of the world’s leading scientists in France and the United States now calling for further investigation into this oil spill (which they describe as ‘unusual’ and ‘surprising’) and neither the Japanese Government, Japan P&I Club or Le Floch Depollution responding to these demands, something very serious appears to be materializing in Mauritius.
International environmental organizations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have also been joining these calls for a more rigorous independent scientific assessment of the oil spill, especially following the necropsies of the pregnant whales in September.
What the world needs is full transparency and trust that this oil spill is being managed professionally, and right now both appear to be sorely lacking.