Sat, Jul 06, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Solomon Islands bay suffers its second big environmental disaster of the year

The Guardian

A second major spill has hit a pristine Solomon Islands bay where a bulk carrier ran aground on a coral reef and leaked oil earlier this year.

On Monday, an estimated 5,000 tonnes of bauxite, the ore used in aluminum smelting, slipped into the water at Rennell Island’s Kangava Bay while it was being loaded on to a barge.

“The water is red. It’s like a scene from the Exodus,” a source on the island said.

It is the second major environmental disaster for the area this year.

MV Solomon Trader in February ran aground on a reef, spilling about 80 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. The vessel was there to load bauxite from the island’s mining operations, which lies on the doorstep of a world heritage site in the island’s east.

The Solomon Islands government is reportedly expected to sign off on the four-month oil spill clean up on July 17, following the completion of an environmental assessment.

While local villagers have been told not to eat fish, many reportedly still are, in the absence of other food sources on the remote island.

Test results have yet to come back to determine whether fish stocks have been contaminated with hydrocarbons.

“The impact of the oil is not nearly as bad as you would expect. The oil isn’t likely to cause any long-term damage,” another source said. “The bauxite is the overwhelming issue by a long shot and that is causing substantial long-term changes to the marine ecosystem.”

Ongoing mismanagement of bauxite loading has resulted in the whole bottom of the bay, down to several hundred meters, being covered in the mineral, the source said.

“It’s just totally out of control,” the source added.

University of Technology Sydney water and ecology expert Martina Doblin said that the bauxite powder was likely to smother and bury what is on the ocean floor and would be spread around in tidal currents.

“It could limit the amount of light, so the water is cloudy and that means less light penetration for coral and sea grasses — it would have a harmful effect,” Doblin said.

OceansWatch Solomon Islands spokesman Lawrence Nodua said that the contamination would cause problems for fish breeding.

“Normally fish come to where the coral are, so if the coral dies, they won’t be there [and will lose the reef protection],” he said.

There were reports that children swimming in the bay were experiencing skin irritation from the poor water quality, he said.

A Bintan Mining Solomon Islands company spokesman on Thursday told reporters that loading operations were suspended following the incident on Monday. The company would not comment further.

Sources said that the company had moved loading operations to other parts of the island.

During the height of the oil spill disaster, Bintan Mining Solomon Islands faced criticism for continuing with its bauxite loading operations.

While currents pushed slick away from the world heritage site, reporters have been told that small amounts have washed up in the area.

“Nothing significant, literally the size of a US$0.50 piece here or there,” another source said.

Since 2013 the site has been on a UNESCO danger list because of logging and overfishing.

The bulk carrier’s insurer, KP&I, said that negotiations over cleanup operation costs would begin soon, but warned that compensation claims would take time.

Although matters of liability are yet to be determined, the insurer and shipowner have previously “expressed deep remorse” and characterized the situation as “totally unacceptable.”

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