Anger mounts at response to Solomons oil disaster

4:49 pm on 4 March 2019

Efforts to avert an environmental catastrophe in a Solomon Islands world heritage area have intensified, as salvage crews begin efforts to pump about 600 tonnes of oil from a ship stranded on a reef.

The MV Solomon Trader stuck on a reef off of Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands is leaking oil into the ocean. February 2019.

The MV Solomon Trader stuck on a reef off of Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands is leaking oil into the ocean. February 2019. Photo: Australian High Commission in Solomon Islands - DFAT

The abandoned hull of the 200-metre long cargo vessel, Solomon Trader, still sits precariously on the reef at Kangava Bay, in remote Rennell Island, where it was washed up on 5 February. The ship, chartered by an Indonesian mining company, had encountered difficulties while trying to load bauxite during a cyclone.

A gash on the bulker's side has leaked about 100 tonnes of oil into the sea, according to environmental assessments conducted by Solomon Islands and Australian authorities, creating an oil slick that extends about six kilometres from the wreckage.

The oil spill spells disaster for local communities in Kangava Bay, where hundreds of residents rely on the sea for their food and livelihoods. Pictures from the area have shown normally bright blue water darkened by oil slicks, white sand blackened by sludge, and interviews with residents have told of a heavy stench that makes breathing difficult.

"It's part of our life," said Colin Singamoana, the premier of Rennell Province. "We usually use the reef. We also rely on seafood."

As response crews scrambled to contain the spill and pump the remaining oil from the ship, they are in a race against time to avert a catastrophe. Environmental assessments predict a "high chance" of the remaining fuel escaping, with the hull threatening to break apart.

Anger over how avoidable this environmental disaster was has been compounded by the response from shipping and mining companies involved, which officials from Solomon Islands, Australia and New Zealand have described as slow and evasive.

"Our view is that the ship's owners and insurers need to play their part," said Don Higgins, the New Zealand High Commissioner to Solomon Islands.

In a post to Twitter on Saturday, Roderick Brazier, the Australian High Commissioner to Solomon Islands said: "The companies involved must take action now".

On Sunday, Australia's foreign minister Marisse Payne weighed in: "We expect companies operating in our region to meet international standards and take seriously their environmental obligations," she said in a statement.

Oil spill from the reef wrecked MV Solomon Trader is spreading up and down the coast of East Rennell.

Photo: Australian High Commission in Solomon Islands - DFAT

The Hong Kong-flagged Solomon Trader arrived in Kangava Bay from the Chinese port city of Longkou on 5 February, when Cyclone Oma was churning its way through southern Solomon Islands and the north of Vanuatu.

The Solomon Islands Meteorological Service was issuing cyclone warnings for much of the country, including Rennell, on 5 February, including specific warnings for mariners to secure their vessels and avoid sailing.

Despite the weather, the ship's crew started loading bauxite, the main mineral used in the production of aluminium, from a mine on Rennell operated by the company Bintan Mining Ltd.

Cyclone Oma whipped up heavy swells and, somehow, the Solomon Trader was cast adrift in the middle of the night, ending up stricken on the reef a few metres from the shore of Kangava Bay.

Where the crew were and how they reacted is still under investigation, and the Solomon Islands government said it had conducted initial interviews with them as part of its inquiries.

Mr Singamoana said he understood negligence had played a part in the disaster.

"The crew of the vessel left for the celebration of the Chinese New Year, that's what I heard when I was in Rennell," he said in an interview from Honiara, the capital.

"The crew of the vessel … they went up to the campsite of the mining company and when the storm hit the vessel it was too late to do anything."

The acting director of the Solomon Islands Maritime Safety administration, Jonah Mitau, had also told local media of a lack of crew watching the vessel that night, suggesting it was a breach of the international safety management code.

Much of Rennell - including a marine zone that extends three kilometres out to sea - is part of a World Heritage Area, recognised by the United Nations as a global site of ecological significance that's already threatened by mining, logging and climate change. The island is the largest raised coral atoll in the world, and contains diverse and unmodified forests, coral and species.

It took days for disaster authorities to reach the ship, which was not leaking initially, according to the Solomon Islands Disaster Management Office. Then, once the ship did start leaking, it took several more days for salvage crews to be deployed.

As the abandoned ship started to list, and as oil began to pour into the pristine waters, according to three people with direct knowledge of the operation, the mine continued to operate, with several ships manoeuvering around the Solomon Trader to collect their loads, stirring up oil in the process.

According to the governments of Solomon Islands, New Zealand and Australia, the responsibility for containing the spill, cleaning it up, and removing the wreckage, lies with the ship's owner, King Trading Ltd, its South Korean insurer, and the miner, Bintan Mining Ltd.

King Trading Ltd did not respond to requests for comment.

But they've acted frustratingly slow, according to government sources, with one saying action was only really taken once international pressure was applied.

"It's frustrating that it's taken so long in such a sensitive area," Mr Higgins said.

Nearly a month on, work is finally gaining momentum. Solomon Islands has asked Australia's maritime agency to lead the response, and several military flights loaded with equipment and experts have arrived in the country. A ship is en route to Rennell from Australia which will be anchored at Kangava Bay as an operations centre.

Oil slick from the shipwrecked MV Solomon Trader polluting the shoreline on Rennell Island in the Solomons. February 2019

Oil slick from the shipwrecked MV Solomon Trader polluting the shoreline on Rennell Island in the Solomons. February 2019 Photo: Australian High Commission in Solomon Islands - DFAT

New Zealand's government said it had deployed two experts from Maritime New Zealand and would consider further assistance alongside Australian counterparts.

"There is a high risk remaining heavy fuel oil on the vessel (currently estimated at over 600 tonnes) will be released into the surrounding area," Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the oil spill was being stirred in the currents, Mr Singamoana said, leaving locals and officials to peel the sticky bitumen-like sludge from their white sand and rocks.

He said locals were being told to avoid seafood, their main protein source.

Despite best efforts to protect it, Mr Higgins said that it was likely the world heritage area would be affected in some way.

He said pressure continued to be applied for the companies to step up, as frustration towards them continued to mount. On Monday, the Solomon Islands government was talking of taking legal action against the companies and possibly suspending Bintan's operations on Rennell.

That frustration has reached Canberra too. "Australia is profoundly disappointed by the slow response of these companies, and their lack of adequate communications with and responsiveness to the Solomon Islands government," the DFAT statement said.

"We are using our international network and standing as a close partner of Solomon Islands to advocate for Solomon Islands' interests and bring pressure to bear on responsible entities," it continued. "We will act, as appropriate, to minimise the impacts of the spill while ensuring we do not diminish in any way the fundamental obligations of responsible parties."

For Mr Singamoana, the companies had to step up: "They have to do something about it, especially to the local people who own the reefs".

"They did it," he said.

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