How heavy oil pollution is threatening the island paradise of Mauritius


The government of Mauritius recently decided to expand a power plant operating outside the capital Port Louis. But for locals living nearby, it’s a decision that could have dire consequences for their health, which they say is already compromised by pollution coming from the plant.

Taking matters into their own hands, the locals have decided to go to court to try to stop the new construction.

Mauritius, an island nation known for its idyllic beaches and breathtaking natural landscape, is ranked as the second-least polluted country in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And residents want to keep it that way.

But the thermal power plant run by the state-owned electricity company, Central Electricity Board (CEB) is fired by heavy fuel oil, which means that it also produces a lot of pollution.

This video was filmed by a local man, Ismael Mons. It was posted on the YouTube channel run by the Plaine Lauzun Civic Movement.

“When you look at the city from above, you can see a thick cloud of black smoke”

Abdool Farade Nunnoo is the president of the Plaine Lauzun Civic Movement (Mouvement civique de Plaine Lauzun), which is a neighbourhood association based in a residential area near the power plant. Nunnoo is trying to slow down the expansion project and is pushing to one day close the plant entirely.

The motors at the St. Louis power plant are extremely noisy. It also stinks because of the sulphur [Editor’s note: Fuel oil contains relatively high amounts of pollutants, including sulphur]. Locals say they are extremely concerned about the effects of the plant on their health and they talk about recurring respiratory problems like bronchitis and asthma.

We wanted to know if their fears were legitimate so we decided to investigate, and found that many residents have fallen ill because of the power plant. The plant has also been harmful to the environment. For example, you can see that hardly any plants grow around the power plant itself. Almost every night, if you are up in the hills and you look down on the city, you can see a thick cloud of black or yellow smoke.

A tree growing near the power station seems to be covered with a thick black liquid. Our Observer posted this photo on his organisation’s Facebook page.

Heavy fuel oil, an extremely polluting fuel

The Saint Louis thermal power plant, which is located on the outskirts of Port Louis, has been in operation since 1955. Originally fired by diesel fuel, it started using heavy fuel oils in 1978, ten years after the island achieved independence. 

Heavy fuel oil, like other petroleum products, is made up of many pollutants, including carbon dioxide. It also contains sulphur, which forms sulphur dioxide upon combustion, which contributes to the greenhouse effect. The vapours that it releases also pose an extreme health hazard.

"This project goes counter to all of the country's durable development goals"

Abdool Farade Nunnoo continues:

We filed a complaint with the Supreme Court and the Environmental Tribunal to prevent the installation of four extra motors at the plant. Although these new motors have a more modern design and will be less pollutive than the older motors, the extra motors mean there will still be a large amount of pollution emitted. The expansion project goes against all of our country’s sustainable development goals, especially since we signed the COP21 agreement! [Editor’s note: COP21, is the shortened name for the 21st annual conference of UN member states, held in 2015 in Paris, and which resulted in the signing of an international environmental agreement on climate change.] It’s ridiculous because we are increasing pollution, not solving the problem.

The construction of the new motors is already underway and is set to be completed by July 2017.

"Without a serious epidemiological study, there’s not much we can do"

Oil floats on the surface of the water in a stream near the power plant. This photo was posted on the Facebook page of the organisation run by our Observer.

In 2015, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) reported that the main source of pollution in Mauritius is the burning of fossil fuels for heating homes and providing electricity. In 2011, the WHO reported that its monitoring centres located near the Port Louis power plant had recorded levels of particle pollution six times higher than those in the town centre. Particle pollution is a mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that get into the air. Once inhaled, these particles – which come from chemicals like sulphur dioxide – can cause serious health effects, especially to the heart and lungs.

This is a sampling of information recorded by the WHO about the levels of particle pollution in Mauritius.

However, for the time being, no one has carried out a thorough epidemiological study examining the effects of the power plant on the health of local people.

In 2009, three science students at the University of Mauritius examined government health statistics and found that there had been “an increase in illnesses like asthma and lung infections” in areas where the air quality was worse – which tended to be in areas close to the power plants on the island. "However, this fact needs to be studied in further detail to determine the exact causes of these increases,” they added.

"The people opposing this expansion don’t have any real proof"

The mayor of Port Louis, Mohammad Oumar Kholeegan, told France 24 that he “understood” the concerns of people living close to the power plant and had gone to the site himself to look at the adverse effects that the construction might have on the population. However, he said that “according to a report from the Minister of the Environment, the power plant will not affect people or the environment”.

“In order to proceed, those opposed to the expansion would need to carry out an investigation as professional as the study completed by the Minister of the Environment. For the time being, those opposed to the expansion don’t have any real proof that it would be dangerous,” he said.

Danielle Selvon, the MP for the constituency affected by the power plant, brought the claims of the neighbourhood association before the Mauritian parliament. The Minister of Energy responded that the African Development Bank did not express any concerns before agreeing to finance 90% of the power plant’s renovation.

Selvon, however, does have concerns.

"What worries me the most is that there is no evacuation plan in case of a fire, even though there are houses located only a dozen metres from the power plant,” Selvon told France 24 by telephone. Two new oil tanks, both of which measure 1,000 cubic metres, are supposed to be installed during the power plant’s renovation and expansion. By nature, these tanks are highly flammable. Selvon says that they are supposed to be constructed at least a kilometre from residential areas.

A screenshot from Google Earth shows that the power plant (shown in yellow) is only a dozen metres away from private residences (below).  

France 24 contacted the Mauritian Minister of Energy in an attempt to get a response to the concerns expressed by people living in proximity to the power plant. We will update the article if we receive a response.

The African Development Bank, which is mostly financed by African states, wrote up a long report on the power plant countering the complaints raised by activists. The report argues that the renovation project would mitigate harmful effects on the environment, even if it would not get rid of them entirely.

The neighbourhood association run by our Observer tried to convince the bank to change its mind, but it was too late. Recently, a petition against the expansion that was signed by 2,300 people was handed to the mayor in the hopes that it might influence the decision of the Supreme Court, who will come to a verdict in the next few weeks.