An estimated 5,000 tonnes of bauxite has spilled into Kangava Bay, where a tanker ran aground in February
Lisa Martin | The Guardian | 5 July 2019
A second major spill has hit the 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 aluminium smelting, slipped into the water at Kangava Bay, Rennell Island, 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 told the Guardian.
It is the second major environmental disaster for the area this year.
MV Solomon Trader ran aground on a reef in February, 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 Guardian understands the Solomon Islands government is expected to sign off on the four-month oil spill clean up on 17 July, following the completion of the environmental assessment.
While local villagers have been told not to eat fish, it is understood many still are, in the absence of other food sources on the remote island. Test results are 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,” a seperate person on the ground told the Guardian.
“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 metres, being covered in the mineral, the source said.
“It’s just totally out of control,” he said.
University of Technology Sydney water and ecology expert Martina Doblin warned the bauxite powder was likely to smother and bury what is on the ocean floor and will 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 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.
He claimed there were reports that children swimming in the bay were experiencing skin irritation from the poor water quality.
A Bintan Mining Solomon Islands company spokesman told the Guardian on Thursday that loading operations were suspended following the incident on Monday. The company would not comment further.
Sources on the ground said the company had moved loading operations to other parts of the island.
While currents pushed slick away from the world heritage site, the Guardian has been told small amounts have washed up in the area.
“Nothing significant, literally the size of a 50c 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 negotiations over clean-up operation costs would kick off soon but warned compensation claims would take time.
Although matters of liability are yet to be determined, the insurer and ship owner have previously “expressed deep remorse” and characterised the situation as “totally unacceptable”.
Comment has been sought from the Solomon Islands Maritime Authority, National Disaster Management Office and mining ministry.