Heavy fuel has been leaching into the southern waters of Rennell Island – renowned for its limestone formations, thick forest and Unesco heritage-protected lagoon – since the MV Solomon Trader cargo ship ran aground there more than a month ago.
The world’s largest raised coral atoll, Rennell is home to some 2,000 people – along with several distinctive animal and plant species.
“The ecosystem throughout Kangava Bay relies on the reef, and all of the reef’s problems – such as bauxite or oil contamination, and climate-related issues such as rising sea temperature and acidification – add together,” says Chris Bone, director of the environmental group Oceans Watch Solomon Islands.
“The oil appears to be spreading throughout the bay … where there is a circular current that tends to move things along.”
'High risk' the remaining oil will be leaked
Images of the disaster show once pristine aquamarine water blackened by clouds of oil spilling from the crippled vessel. It was carrying more than 770 tons of fuel oil when the island's reef tore a hole in its side as it was loading bauxite in stormy weather.
At least 100 tons of fuel have already been spilled, with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warning there’s a “high risk” the rest of it will leak too.
Bone says two types of oil are polluting Kangava Bay. “Aerial photos show a mixture of what appears to be light oil floating on the surface – the type of oil that shines and makes rainbow patterns,” he says.
“That’s bad enough, but there’s also very heavy black oil – the sort that lands on the beach and needs to be taken away with spades and shovels.”
Locals have been left devastated, and Willie Sau Kaitu’u, from Rennell's Tehakatuu tribe, says they’re angry by the government’s failure to listen to their protests to end the mining, which began in 2014 when Bintan Mining Solomon Islands was given access to the island.
Shortages of food, fresh water
Not only has the reef upon which villagers rely for food been poisoned, Sau Kaitu’u says, their fresh drinking water is also contaminated. “We’ve been banned from going fishing and the Ministry of Heath has warned us against collecting cabbages and other crops because of the risks,” he says.
“It’s very frustrating. People have been experiencing breathing problems and are complaining about stomach and head pains. We rely on the water and now it’s contaminated. The government has to revisit these mining operations.”
Sau Kaitu’u told RFI that despite the unfolding disaster, another ship is continuing to load bauxite right next to the stricken Solomon Trader. Media reports confirm Bintan is continuing to load bauxite with other bulk carriers – something Chris Bone warns is further contaminating the water.
“You can see from aerial photos around the loading area that bauxite is actually spilling into the sea as it’s being loaded aboard the ship. I have a picture right in front of me of the seawater turning orange,” Bone says.
“The bauxite in suspension in the sea will be settling on the reef and smothering the reef. The corals will be already dying from bauxite. Those that survive a load of bauxite sedimentation then face being killed by the oil because they will be less resilient.”
Rennell Island has been described by the UN as “a true natural laboratory for scientific study”. Speaking in the Solomon capital Honiara, the Australian High Commissioner, Rod Brazier, told journalists: “Australia is extremely concerned at the scale of this disaster, the impact of this oil spill will have a devastating effect on the surrounding environment … as well as the livelihood of the people of Rennell.”
Australia says it’s also “exploring all options” to help the Solomon Islands government hold those responsible to account.
Little progress with clean-up effort
Bone says that for all the talk of a clean-up, there doesn’t appear to be much movement on the ground. “Committees have been set up and experts are arriving by plane from all over the world, but as far as I can see the ship has been there a month now and absolutely nothing has been done,” he says.
“It surprises me that a boom has not been brought to the ship and put around it to stop the oil from spreading. Every port in the world should have an oil boom, including Honiara. There may be other ships coming to try and pump out the oil on board – but this is a very treacherous area. I know it well and I’ve anchored there myself. There are lots of coral outcrops that make manouevring near that vessel difficult. It’s very dangerous."