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Solomon Islands oil spill worse than first thought, say owners of Hong Kong-flagged tanker, as three-mile-long slick threatens Unesco World Heritage site

The oil spill from a Hong Kong-flagged tanker that is threatening to destroy marine life at a Unesco World Heritage site in the Solomon Islands is worse than first thought, its owner King Trader has said.

Bulk carrier MV Solomon Trader ran aground a month ago during bad weather near the remote Rennell Island in the South Pacific, home to the world’s largest raised coral atoll.

So far, more than 70 tonnes of oil has been dumped into the ocean, causing a three-mile slick in Kangava Bay which experts said was likely to cause long-term damage to the local ecosystem.

The ship ran into difficulties on February 5, while loading a cargo of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminium. In a statement on Thursday the vessel’s insurer said the spill might be more serious than expected.

“Although initial estimates indicated that some 70 tonnes of oil entered the water, it’s now believed that the escaped amount is higher, something that will be clarified as the response progresses,” Korea Protection and Indemnity Club, and King Trader, said.

The vessel’s owner said earlier it was transferring the remaining 600 tonnes on the vessel to safer tanks. As of Thursday, less than half of the remaining fuel oil – about 230 tonnes – had been transferred to a tank barge towed from Vanuatu.

The 225-metre vessel carried about 700 tonnes of fuel on board before the accident.

Hong Kong’s Marine Department said it was already in contact with the vessel’s owner about containing the spill, which sparked global concerns over the environmental disaster. The Australian government has sent specialised equipment and crew to help clean up the mess.

“The department has urged the shipowner to take all actions to minimise the pollution impact to the environment,” the department’s spokeswoman said.

“The salvage company engaged by the shipowner has been carrying out cleaning and pollution control operations in the casualty site for weeks, but the progress has been affected by the local weather and the remoteness of the island.”

The spokeswoman added that the department had been liaising with authorities in the region to assist the local government. It is also involved in a joint investigation into the accident.

Dr Stephen Li Yiu-kwong, a professor of maritime studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said the city’s authorities needed to follow up on the incident as the vessel is registered in Hong Kong.

“It’s like if my son did some damage to your house,” he said. “As a parent, I also have the responsibility [to follow up].”

He said the department could punish the owners with a warning or suspension of their shipping licence if the company were found culpable for the spill.

The vessel was chartered by Indonesia-based Bintan Mining to take nearly 11,000 tonnes of bauxite from its mine on the western half of Rennell Island to China.

The shipowner apologised earlier last week for the slow salvage operation to stop oil from leaking further, saying the situation worsened with the arrival of Cyclone Oma, which pushed the stricken vessel harder into the reef.

A spokesman for the insurer and shipowner also told the Post the oil spill was because of structural damage to the vessel caused during the cyclone.
“Fuel oil escaped into the engine room and has leaked from a rupture in the hull,” he said.

In its latest statement, King Trader said it expected to complete the transfer of fuel in the “coming days”, but added that breaks could occur due to weather or equipment repairs.

Minor residual amounts of leaked oil have been detected entering the water because pumping and skimming operations in the flooded engine room, it added.

It reiterated that the salvage operation was difficult at such a remote and hazardous location, in addition to the lost of power of the vessel and the adverse weather, but said it would protect the environment as far as “practically possible”.
Source: South China Morning Post

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