Photo: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT)

by Yoel Fessahaye

A nightmare is unraveling in the jewel-toned waters of the Solomon Islands. According to CNN and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, a ship carrying 700 metric tons of heavy oil ran aground in Solomon Islands’ Kangava Bay, near East Rennell — the only natural UNESCO World Heritage site in the Pacific that is on the Danger List. One hundred tons of fuel has already spilled around a 6-kilometer (3.7 miles) range, with 600 tons more onboard the vessel. The environmental impact of the month-long leak has appeared in the form of dead fish and toxic fumes affecting both animals and people.

The site is home to the world’s largest raised coral atoll, and approximately 1,200 people of Polynesian origin occupy four villages within the boundaries of the property, living mainly by subsistence gardening, hunting and fishing. The responsibility to salvage the ship and mitigate ecological damage rests with the commercial entities involved. However, as the Guardian reported, the vessel’s Hong Kong owner, King Trader Ltd, and its Insurer Korea P&I Club issued an apology over the environmental disaster but stopped short of accepting liability. The slow response and lack of communication by the companies responsible has angered the governments of Solomon Islands, Australia and New Zealand.

Australia is currently leading the cleanup operations, which began on Friday with fuel from the ruptured tank being pumped into a secure container. It also set up a dynamic boom system to start cleaning up the oil that has already spilled into the sea. The companies involved will take over the operation soon and will be billed for Australia’s efforts. Shipping experts believe the cleanup will cost them up to $50 million in total.

Why This Matters: It is bad enough that oil was spilled into the ocean, but for the leak to persist for an entire month right next to one of the most valuable ecological hotspots on our planet is utterly devastating. International shipping companies need to be held accountable by international courts for maritime incidents involving their vessels. We also need to recognize that the longer we depend on oil for fuel, the higher our chances of accidents like this occurring in pristine ecosystems around the world. When will we learn our lesson?

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