Six weeks after a ship grounded on a reef in the southern Solomon Islands, salvers have finally managed to stop an oil leak that threatens a UNESCO World Heritage site. At least 60 tons of heavy fuel oil gushed into the water off Rennell Island in what is being described as the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history.
Back on February 5th, the MV Solomon Trader was loading bauxite from a mine on Rennell Island when it went adrift in a gale and grounded on a reef off Kangava Bay.
Two weeks later, heavy swells from Cyclone Oma washed the bulk carrier deeper into the coral, which gashed the side of the ship and opened its fuel tanks to the sea. Reports vary on how much oil spilled in the next month, but a black tide flows in what were once neon blue waters and at least three miles of reef are coated with sludge.
Fishing has been banned in the bay and on the reef, so the people in four coastal villages have to depend on deliveries of food from the capital, Honiara, 150 miles away on Guadalcanal. The oil also contaminated fresh water springs, so villagers now rely on rainwater.
The spill happened just outside of a World Heritage site called East Rennell; UNESCO describes it as the largest raised coral atoll in the world and a “true natural laboratory for scientific study.”
Questions include why the Hong Kong flagged ship continued loading amid gale warnings, the liability of the Indonesian owned mining company, Bintan Mining and why the ships owners, the mining company and the Solomon Islands government were so slow to respond.
Australia has sent experts, vessels and equipment to help. Rick Hou, the acting prime minister of the Solomons, said the government has earned little from the bauxite shipped off Rennell so far, and will revisit environmental laws that he described as inadequate.