Sat, Mar 02, 2019 - Page 5 News List

Bauxite loading adds to Solomons oil spill threat

The Guardian

An undated handout photo provided by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade yesterday shows the oil spill from the MV Solomon Trader along the coastline of the Solomons’ Rennell Island.

Photo: Reuters / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

The environmental damage from an oil spill in the Solomon Islands has been worsened by a bauxite mining company’s continued loading operations near the site where a US$30 million bulk carrier went aground last month.

The Solomon Islands government has sought urgent help from Australia to deal with the environmental disaster because of frustrations at the slow progress in dealing with the spill.

The MV Solomon Trader had been loading bauxite from a mine on Rennell Island before cyclone Oma pushed it aground on a coral reef on Feb. 5.

So far, 75 tonnes of fuel oil have leaked into the ocean. The 225m ship was carrying up to 600 tonnes of fuel oil, as well as a full load of bauxite, the main ore used to make aluminum.

The clean-up operation could take months and might require further assistance from countries such as Australia.

“Once it hits rock the heavy fuel oil is effectively like a bitumen-

like substance and has to be removed by hand,” a source in the Solomon Islands with knowledge of the incident said.

The oil is yet to reach East Rennell, the largest raised coral atoll in the world and a world heritage site. Since 2013, the site has been on a UNESCO danger list because of logging and overfishing.

Authorities are concerned the ship is at risk of breaking up while Bintan Mining Solomon Islands Ltd, the Indonesian company that chartered the vessel, continues to load bauxite with other bulk carriers.

“Bauxite extraction and loading is continuing in the bay, that is further churning up the oil,” a source said.

The Solomon Islands government is expected to demand the company cease operations.

Officials from the Solomon Island Maritime Administration interviewed mining management on Thursday afternoon in Honiara.

A spokeswoman for the company confirmed its operations were continuing.

“Yes, we are continuing,” she said.

Salvage efforts were under way, she said, without elaborating.

An insurance company has engaged a salvage company in the Solomon Islands to handle the ship, which is owned by a Hong Kong company, South Express Ltd, but so far the rest of the oil remains on board.

“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 said.

It has also been reported that local villagers have been looting the ship for equipment.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has updated travel advice warning people to reconsider the need to travel to Rennell Island because “heavy fuel oil is a toxic substance” and exposure to it posed a health risk.

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre this week expressed concerned about the impact of the oil spill. It was working with the Solomon authorities to minimize the impact of the spill.

Australia’s Maritime Safety Authority has carried out surveillance flights and deployed several officials to the disaster zone.

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