On Tuesday 5 February, a bauxite bulk carrier, the 'Solomon Trader', carrying an estimated 700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, ran aground in Solomon Islands' Rennell and Bellona Province. The vessel is located in Kangava Bay, Rennell Island, home to a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Aerial assessments conducted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) on behalf of the Solomon Islands government confirmed extensive oil leakage around the ship, dispersing across the surrounding sea and shoreline.
The Solomon Islands Government advise that responsibility to salvage the vessel and mitigate the environmental impact of this incident rests with the commercial entities involved, in particular the vessel owner, King Trader Ltd, and its insurer Korea P&I Club.
Australian Government assistance
Given the ecological damage, and a lack of immediate action by commercial entities involved, the Solomon Islands government requested Australia's assistance on 16 February.
Australia responded, supporting the Solomon Islands Government by providing technical advice and assistance to inform government assessments and response to the spill. Australia is also supporting the Government in its dealings with the responsible entities.
On 24 February, the Solomon Islands Government requested Australia's assistance in establishing an oil spill mitigation and remediation operation.
On 1 March, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, announced Australia's mobilisation of a targeted, pollution mitigation and remediation sweep. Australia's support sought to minimise the impacts of the oil spill on the local area, while action by the responsible parties to properly contain and manage this incident scaled up.
Australia's operation, which commenced on 7 March, involved the deployment of specialised equipment and vessels from Australia and Honiara. An eight person spill response crew from AMSA was deployed, together with a Paramedic and a liaison officer from Emergency Management Australia. In addition, further vessels, specialist equipment and personnel were deployed, including embedded personnel from Maritime New Zealand. Efforts focused on targeted offshore (on-water) oil spill mitigation and remediation activities in Kangava Bay.
During the second week of operations, Australia and the Solomon Islands Government assessed that the salvage contractor had built their capacity to an appropriate standard and was making good progress with the removal of oil from the vessel. In addition, it was confirmed that there was little or no fresh oil leaking from the vessel. With the level of risk and capacity of responders at acceptable levels, consistent with our proposed time-bound support, Australia commenced a hand over of on-water operations to the commercial salvage firm, and ceased on-water operations on 21 March.
Australia will continue to support the Solomon Islands Government to monitor the clean up and hold responsible entities to account.