Slow Response to Solomon Islands Oil Spill near UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Solomon Islands are facing an environmental crisis following an oil spill that occurred nearly one month ago. The $30 million bulk carrier ship ran aground in early February and the spill threatens East Rennell, which is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and part of Rennell Island, the largest raised coral atoll in the world.
East Rennell has been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1998. According to the UNESCO website, “approximately 1,200 people of Polynesian origin occupy four villages within the boundaries of the property, living mainly by subsistence gardening, hunting and fishing,” meaning their livelihoods could be significantly impacted if the oil spill reaches Rennell Island. In addition, East Rennell “demonstrates significant ongoing ecological and biological processes and is an important site for the science of island biogeography” and is “a true natural laboratory for scientific study.”
Response to the spill has been dishearteningly slow as disagreements regarding who should take responsibility continue. The “MV Solomon Trader” ship is owned by South Express, Ltd., an import/export service company based in Hong Kong. The ship was being chartered by the Bintan Mining company in the Solomon Islands to load bauxite from a mine on Rennell Island and was run aground by tropical cyclone Oma on the morning of Feb. 5.
Experts estimate that over 80 tons of oil have leaked into the environment already, while the ship carries over 600 tons in total. Given the delayed response, the government of the Solomon Islands has reached out to Australian authorities for assistance in dealing with the spill. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said that there is a high risk the remaining oil will leak and that it was “profoundly disappointed” by the slow response. The Bintan Mining company of the Solomon Islands is continuing to mine bauxite using other carriers and the government of the Solomon Islands is expected to demand that the company cease operations in light of the spill.
According to the government of the Solomon Islands, salvaging the ship and mitigating the environmental effects of the spill are responsibilities of the companies involved. South Korean insurance company Korea P&I Club has reportedly engaged a salvage company in the Solomon Islands to deal with the ship, but as of now the oil remains on board. If the cleanup continues at this pace, it is likely to take several months and the assistance of other corporations and governments.