World Heritage Site Swamped By Oil and Chemicals From Crashed Ship

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An aerial photograph shows the extent of the oil spill (Photo: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

A ship that ran aground early in February has been leaking oil into the water surrounding a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Solomon Islands for more than a month, and little is being done to stem the flow.

The Solomon Trader, a Hong-Kong registered bulk-carrier, ran aground at Kangava Bay, Rennell Island during a typhoon on 5 February while loading its cargo of bauxite ore. The resulting damage to the hull punctured the vessel's oil tank, around 80 tons of which have been deposited across the island's reef. Reports suggest more than 600 tons of fuel oil remain on board, and until today, nobody has done anything to prevent further leakage.

Two barges of bauxite that were to be loaded onto the Solomon Trader were also dumped onto the reef as a result of the crash. Bauxite is the world's main source of aluminium and contains a number of other chemicals including oxides of iron and chromium. These are toxic to the marine ecosystem and also to the human body if ingested or inhaled.

In an interview with the Solomon Star News, Chief Raymond Sau of Avatai village in West Rennell said that since the disaster occurred, they have not eaten fresh fish from the sea for fears they might be poisoned as a result of the oil and chemical spill. Many fish have been seen dead at the surface of the water.

'The fishermen stopped fishing because of dirty water, we cannot go fishing for fears of fish poisoning and the sea is also very dirty,' Chief Sau told the Solomon Star. 'We also advised our children not go out for a swim as the sand on the beaches is covered with oil,' he added. 

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The Solomon Islands are otherwise home to some of the world's most pristine marine ecosystems (Photo: Shutterstock)

The spill has spread beyond the reef and has also begun to contaminate the villagers' fresh water supply. 'The opening of streams at the sea's shores have been covered with oil so we cannot get fresh water to drink, 'said Chief Sau. 'These streams are our only hope for fresh water when we experience dry seasons. It’s been a week without rain but luckily the mining company (Binang Mining) helps in providing water but we don’t know how long it will take to get such assistance,' he added. 

'During the day it’s okay but when night comes, we have a hard time breathing due to the bad smell from the spilled oil,' said Sau, describing further effects of the pollution. 'Some people including children have fallen sick due to this odious smell,' he said.

According to a UNESCO press release, East Rennell was granted World Heritage status in 1998 and is the largest raised coral atoll in the world. 'The site includes Lake Tegano, a brackish lake containing many rugged limestone islets which was the former lagoon on the atoll, a diverse and unmodified forest vegetation, and a marine area extending 3 nautical miles to sea. The property was the first natural property inscribed on the World Heritage List with customary ownership and management,' states the report. 'Approximately 1,200 people of Polynesian origin occupy four villages within the boundaries of the property, living mainly by subsistence gardening, hunting and fishing.'

Although eco-tourism has, in recent years, become a source of revenue for the islanders, their main income is generated by the logging industry and bauxite mining. The villagers are otherwise almost solely dependent on the ocean for their livelihoods.

Salvage work has begun on the vessel, one month after it first ran aground. After such a lengthy period of time, aerial photographs show the spill extending around 6km along the shoreline, with beaches blackened with oil sludge and dead marine animals.

Specialists lead by a team from Australia began pumping the remaining fuel oil from the stranded vessel on Friday, 8 March, with the intention of re-floating the vessel and removing it from the reef. Little, if any, information has been offered as to how, or when, the cleanup of the chemical spill will be conducted.






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