New Zealand joins Solomons oil spill response


Wellington (AFP)

New Zealand joined an international effort Friday to limit damage from oil spilling out of a ship that ran aground near World Heritage-listed waters in the Solomon Islands almost a month ago.

The MV Solomon Trader became stranded on a coral reef on February 5 while loading bauxite at remote Rennell Island, about 240 kilometres (150 miles) south of the capital Honiara.

Efforts to salvage the 225-metre bulk carrier have so far failed and experts estimate about 75 tonnes of heavy fuel oil has leaked into the sea, with another 600 tonnes still on board.

"Australia remains extremely concerned by the ongoing risk of a major oil spill," Canberra's High Commission in Honiara said in a statement.

Rennell Island is the largest raised coral atoll in the world and includes a UNESCO World Heritage site which extends kilometres (miles) out to sea.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority is providing regular aerial surveillance of the stricken ship to monitor the unfolding environmental disaster.

Pictures taken during the flyovers show a large oil slick running from the ship into the aquamarine waters and thick clumps of petrochemical sludge on the shore.

New Zealand dispatched two oil spill containment specialists to the disaster zone on Friday and said they would help implement a response plan.

Maritime New Zealand said more specialists may be needed as the situation evolved.

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre has expressed concerns about the grounding said says it is working with local officials on mitigation measures.

Australia has advised its citizens to reconsider travelling to Rennell Island, warning the heavy fuel oil leaking from the ship is a toxic substance and exposure to it should be avoided.

Australia's High Commission described the area as "ecologically delicate" and said local inhabitants relied on the ocean for their livelihoods.

It said Australia would help the Solomons make sure those responsible for the spill were held to account.

"Australia stands behind the Solomon Islands government's efforts to ensure that commercial parties responsible for this incident take action," it said.

The Solomon Trader is registered in Hong Kong and operated by a Hong Kong-based company, but its ownership is unclear.