A terrifying environmental calamity has engulfed the Solomon Islands after a bulk carrier ran aground in last month’s cyclone Oma, threatening the future of a sensitive UNESCO World Heritage site.
The government of the small island nation has demanded urgent assistance in controlling the spill, which has already leaked over 80 tons of oil into the sea and surrounding shoreline and continues to gush into the nearby coral reef, causing a devastating impact on the environmentally sensitive region.
On February 5, the Hong Kong-flagged Solomon Trader, built in 1994, was loading bauxite from a mine on Rennell Island before the cyclone sank the ship onto a coral reef.
Over 660 tons of oil remain on board the leaking vessel along with the ship’s full load of bauxite, the key ore used to make aluminum. The ship was chartered with Indonesian company Bintan Mining Solomon Islands Limited, but its ownership remains unclear.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has expressed that it was “profoundly disappointed” by the slow response to the unfolding catastrophe, according to the Associated Press.
The spill also threatens to eventually spread to East Rennell, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest raised coral atoll in the world. UNESCO officials had called the site “a true natural laboratory” for scientific study – and one which faces danger due to logging and overfishing in the area. The UNESCO World Heritage Centre is working with Solomon authorities in hopes of assisting in damage control.
A source with close knowledge of the incident told The Guardian:
“Once it hits rock the heavy fuel oil is effectively like a bitumen-like substance and has to be removed by hand.”
While Australian officials warn that it remains high’y likely that the oil will be “released” into the sea, salvage crews have scrambled to mitigate the damage and pump the remaining oil from the ship before it breaks up.
“All of the evidence indicates very little prospect of imminent action that would involve getting the oil off the vessel and preventing the ongoing spill,” the source added.
In the meantime, Bauxite mining operations by the company have continued unimpeded. Officials from the Solomon maritime administration have been interviewing mining management officials, however, and are expected to halt the company’s operations.
About 2,000 people live on Rennell Island and rely on the surrounding ocean, as well as its abundant natural resources, for their livelihoods. The island is also home to a number of unique species, including such birds as the bare-eyed white eye, the Rennell shrikebill, the Solomons white ibis and the rare venomous sea krait Laticauda crockeri.
“The impact of this oil spill will have a devastating effect on the surrounding environment, including potentially on a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as the livelihood of the people of Rennell,” Australian high commissioner Rod Brazier said.