I am at a loss as to why this marine disaster has hardly registered on the Australian radar – press coverage appears to have been piecemeal at best, with little comprehensive coverage of the local, regional and international consequences.

The political response has been limited to hand-wringing stop-gap measures and to paying for a series of failed attempts to plug the spill and some apparently ineffective mopping-up operations.

Atlas West oil rig. Photograph: /Kimberley Whale Watching/WWF
Atlas West oil rig. Photograph: Chris Twomey, office of Ausralian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert

This is a disaster of not only local, but regional and international proportions. And, while the weather conditions in and around the Timor Sea are relatively stable at present, the impending arrival of the seasonal monsoonal cycle in the coming months will substantially change the nature and location of the impact of this massive spill.

The Jakarta Post reports today that the slick is already in Indonesian waters and is causing illness and will have a substantial economic affect on traditional fishers and harvesters on Rote Island:

Four weeks after the oil spill, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) submitted an official report to the Indonesian government mentioning that volumes of crude oil had entered the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone, some 51 nautical miles from Rote Island.

Traditional fishermen operating off Pasir Island found an oil slick resembling a pool around 20 miles from Tablolong beach in Kupand, or around 30 nautical miles from Kolbano, South Central Timor regency.

Last week, fishermen on the coast of Rote Ndao regency started complaining of illnesses as a result of the oil spill that had reached land and damaged thousands of hectares of ready-to-harvest seaweed.

“Seaweed, which is one of the province’s prime commodities, has been polluted. If the farmers fail to harvest their seaweed, they would incur losses of up to billions of rupiah,” said the West Timor Care Foundation NGO director Ferdi Tanoni.

And the Timor Oil spill has been picked up by East Timorese bloggers here and here.

The West Atlas oil rig in the Timor Sea, operated by the Thai-owned PTTEP Australasia, blew on August 21 and has leaked over 400,000 litres of oil, gas and condensate into the Timor Sea at a rate of reported variously as being from 300 to 1,200 barrels a day.

The Fairfax Press reports that Greens Senator Bob Brown believes those figures underestimate the true position – though no material was provided in support of his claim that:

The Greens believe anywhere from 10 to 20 million litres of oil has spilled into the ocean since the leak began on August 21.

Three attempts to plug the hole – by means of intercepting the pipe more than 2.5 kilometres below the sea bed – have been unsuccessful.

A fourth attempt had earlier been abandoned but was apparently to take place sometime yesterday, Sunday October 25.

nbvlhbl
Photograph: Debra Glasgow/WWF

As Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett told the ABC he is:

…confident everything possible is being done to stop the oil leak.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s a fiendishly difficult exercise – a little bit like threading the needle – to try to get this oil spill stopped,” he said.

And a fiendishly expensive one – estimates by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority given to the Australian Senate are that it has cost more that $AU5.3 million to date.

Area of the oil spill in the Timor Sea. Photograph: MODIS/Terra/NASAS
What 25,000 square kilometres of oil slick looks like. Photograph: MODIS/Terra/NASAS

The most comprehensive report I’ve been able to find on this oil spill is this article published last Friday in The Guardian by Toni O’Loughlin.

O’Loughlin’s article relies extensively on a series of reports by the World Wildlife Fund Australia.

Sea snake swimming in sludge. Photograph: Chris Sanderson/WWF
Sea snake swimming in sludge. Photograph: Chris Sanderson/WWF

WWF are the only external independent agency to conduct a survey of the area affected by the spill.

WWF says that:

Dolphins, migratory sea birds and sea snakes were found in abundance in the area, in addition to marine turtles, and many of these species were recorded swimming through the toxic oil affected area during WWF’s recent expedition to Timor Sea…”We recorded hundreds of dolphins and sea birds in the oil slick area, as well as sea snakes and threatened hawksbill and flatback turtles,” said WWF-Australia’s Director of Conservation Dr Gilly Llewellyn, who led the team of ecologists.

Overall the expedition recorded 17 species of seabird, four species of cetacean and five marine reptiles including two species of marine turtle. At least eleven of the species were listed migratory and two – hawksbill and flatback turtles – are listed as threatened with extinction under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

On Wednesday, PTTEP, the company responsible for the oil slick, reported high levels of mortality among oil- affected seabirds. “Clearly, wildlife is dying and hundreds if not thousands of dolphins, seabirds and sea-snakes are being exposed to toxic oil. The critical issue is the long term impact of this slick on a rich marine ecosystem, taking into consideration the magnitude, extent and duration of the event,” said Dr Llewellyn. “We know that oil can be a slow and silent killer…we can expect this environmental disaster will continue to unfold for years to come.”

The true impacts of this most serious regional marine disaster will start to be felt – and recorded – in the Timor Sea in the coming weeks and are already having severe impacts on some parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

Just what will happen when the monsoon season starts and most likely disperses the spill over a greater area in the region – including back onto the Australian north-western coastline, remains to be seen.

But by then it may be too late.

You can see more of the WWF reports and survey here.

And more of the photographs collected at The Guardian’s Environment site here.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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