Month-Long Oil Spill in the Solomon Islands Threatens World’s Largest Coral Reef Atoll

Australia has stepped in to help contain the 600 tons of heavy fuel oil leaking from the transport that ran aground on Rennell Island early last month

Leaking Ship
The Australian High Commission Solomon Islands

For more than a month now, a cargo ship has been leaking heavy fuel oil into the waters of Rennell Island’s Kangava Bay in the South Pacific, home of the world’s largest raised coral atoll and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The 740-foot-long ship called the Solomon Trader ran aground on February 5, 2019, near the Solomon Islands. So far, the wreck has released 80 tons of oil into the sea, but 650 tons remain aboard and experts have determined there's a high chance it too could leak, reports Merit Kennedy at NPR, prompting officials in Australia to deploy maintenance crews to help clean up the mess.

The spill is likely to cause long-term, significant damage to the coral and the local ecosystem, as Simon Albert, a marine ecologist at the University of Queensland who works in the Solomon Islands, tells Jacqueline Williams at The New York Times. NOAA reports that when coral comes in contact with oil, it can either kill the coral polyps directly or affect reproduction, growth and behavior over the long term.

The tanker was attempting to load a cargo of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum, in the Solomon Islands when Cyclone Oma pushed it into the reef. The oil slick is now three miles long and is approaching East Rennel, the section of the island declared a World Heritage site in 1998. The Hong Kong-based owner of the ship and Korea-based insurer issued an apology for the spill calling it “totally unacceptable” reports Lisa Martin at The Guardian, but stopped short of taking full responsibility for the spill.

The company says it tried to use a tugboat to move the ship, but that only made things worse, pushing the vessel farther onto the reef. They also blame the remote location and hazardous weather conditions for failing to make underwater inspections of the ship. That’s why the government of the Solomon Islands, which is a sovereign state, reached out to Australia asking for assistance in mid-February. Australia sent consultants and aided in aerial reconnaissance of the spill, but determined that more was needed to stop the catastrophe.

That's why last week, according to a press release, Australia deployed specialized equipment and a spill-response crew to get the mess under control. Currently, the fuel oil is being pumped off the ship and booms are being deployed to stop the oil’s spread. Salvage experts are also assessing the ship and reviewing strategies for removing it. The goal is get things to a point where responsibility for cleanup and remediation can be handed over to the shipping company and insurer by March 18.

Anne Ruston, Australia's minister for international development and the Pacific, told Agence-France Presse that they are disappointed with the slow response to the spill by the commercial entities involved.

“We needed much speedier action in response to what is potentially a very significant natural disaster," she says. “We would have liked to have seen that the operator and their necessary insurers were a little bit quicker to respond to what was happening, instead of leaving it up to Australia and the Solomon Islands to respond.”

Yessenia Funes at Earther reports that the 1,200 residents of the small island are already feeling the impacts of the spill. People on the atoll have been advised to avoid drinking the rainwater they collect in tanks because evaporated oil fumes may have contaminated them. Many locals are reporting headaches and other ailments.

Stephen Nikamatu’a, a member of the Tehakatu’u tribe that calls the island home, has been documenting the slow-motion disaster as it unfolds on his Facebook page, showing oil washing ashore. Many people on Rennell rely on fishing for their livelihood and sustenance. The spill has made fishing impossible, meaning they have to rely on expensive imported fish and water. Locals are afraid it could take years before local waters are safe again for fishing.

"It is of the utmost importance that any damage to the World Heritage property and the livelihoods of the local communities is fully covered by the responsible company, owners and insurers," Mechtild Rössler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, says in a press release.

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