On the island of Fuvahmulah, along a stretch of pristine beach blackened by construction aggregate, workers are sifting through rocks and sand by hand in an effort to remove several thousands of tonnes of crushed rock dumped by a ship that ran aground on the island’s treacherous reef last August.
Since the painstaking task began two weeks ago, some 30 workers have only managed to remove 16 bags of the rock pieces.
Nearly 5000 tonnes of rock pieces and river sand were controversially dumped on the southern island’s reef in September with the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval in a desperate bid to save the sinking cargo ship, which had collided with the reef amid stormy weather.
With the reef clean up yet to begin, reportedly because of continuing bad weather, removing the aggregate washed up on Fuvahmulah’s shores may take up to a year, according to workers.
The labour-intensive process began when the EPA threatened legal action.
Others, however, claim the task is futile. “It is difficult work. How can they clean up the whole beach by hand?” an island council official said.
Fuvahmulah beach cleanup after dumped aggregate washed ashore. 5K tons of construction aggregate was dumped on the reef in September 2015. pic.twitter.com/iF3iu7l3QZ
— Mohamed Junayd (@mjunayd) January 2, 2017
The EPA, which has refused to reveal details of the environmental toll of the tragedy, has imposed a record fine of MVR633million (US$45million) on the ship’s owners, Vietnam’s Northern Shipping Joint Stock Company. The figure is the maximum possible fine.
NSJC, however, said it could only pay MVR30million (US$2million), an amount the agency has labelled unacceptable. Its chief, Ibrahim Naeem, said the MVR633million was justified when the damage to the coral cover and marine life are taken into account, but said: “We will not reveal details of the damage assessment.”
He added: “We can’t say that this is the biggest damage caused to the reef of the island. For example more damage might have been caused during the construction of the harbour.”
Islanders, however, said the aggregate dump is among the biggest environmental disasters they have witnessed but said they do not know the extent of the damage or how it would affect beach and marine life. The dump site is not accessible to local divers because of strong currents and stormy weather.
Ahmed Tholal Mohamed, a Fuvahmulah councillor, has called on the authorities to reveal their findings, and complete a detailed assessment of damages as soon as possible. “It’s a big disaster. We have beautiful beaches; our natural beauty is unparalleled. We are concerned of the consequences when all of this material washes ashore.
“EPA informed us that they have done an assessment but we have not received any further information. But this isn’t small. It is big.”
The 103-meter ship, MV NGOC Son, was carrying construction material for a water and sanitation project on the island when it ran aground on August 13. Efforts to unload the cargo proved futile, with barges and smaller boats unable to approach the ship without also risking stranding on the reef.
Despairing, NJSC’s insurer’s Maldivian agent, Centurion PLC, obtained permission from the EPA to dump the all of the ship’s cargo to salvage it.
Though the ship re-floated after being emptied, it sank outside the Maldives’ territorial waters the next day as it was being towed to Sri Lanka for repairs.
Centurion claims most of the dumped rock and sand have washed away into the ocean, but Fuvahmulah islanders say more pieces of rock are continuing to wash up on the stretch of the beach off the airport.
Ahmed Maumoon, Centurion’s chairman, says the EPA had prohibited the use of heavy equipment for the cleanup to limit damage to the island’s beach, adding that the reef cleanup would begin as soon as weather permits.
“At this point it is looking like the cleanup is more damaging to the beach than leaving the aggregate as it is,” he says.
Fahi Biz, the Fuvahmulah company contracted for the beach cleanup, agreed.
Ali Mohamed, a spokesman for the company, said the cleanup has been slow “because we have to work around a schedule that does not hinder airport operations and some days we have to cancel work because of bad weather.”
He added: “From what we have managed to do so far, I think it will take about a year or at least half a year to clean it all up.”
Eco Care, an environmental group said the Fuvahmulah tragedy highlights “how environmental damage can happen easily while the damage or the effort it takes to reverse the damage is difficult and at times impossible.”
Correction: January 4, 2017
This article previously misstated Centurion PLC’s status. It was NJSC’s insurer’s agent, and not NJSC’s agent. It also misstated Ahmed Maumoon’s position with the company. Maumoon is its chairman, not its managing director.