On August 21, 2009, the Montara H1 production well, located on the Montara Wellhead Platform, 200 kilometres off Western Australia’s Kimberley coast, suffered a dramatic well-control accident. The resulting environmental disaster has now been recognised as one of Australia’s worst oil spills, and comes at a time when this biologically rich marine region is increasingly in the spotlight for oil and gas development.

In September, a whole month after the incident and with oil still spewing into the Timor Sea, WWF launched a research trip from Darwin to the affected area to gain a first-hand snapshot of the region’s marine life and the potential impacts and risk to marine wildlife of the slick. The expedition set sail on Thursday 24 September and after steaming out to the remote site, spent three days carrying wildlife surveys using a team of trained ecologists.

We found a region rich in marine wildlife and awash in a sea of oil and slicks of waxy, crusty residue. At one point the smell of the fumes from the leaking rig was so strong we had to change course. We know that oil can be a slow and silent killer and it was sickening to sea dolphins surfacing in the oil and sea birds feeding on the slicks and patches of sheen.

The expedition report released last Friday describes the results of three days of surveys which included sightings of 202 Spinner Dolphins, 77 Pan Tropical Spotted dolphins, 30 bottlenose dolphins, 176 Sooty terns, many other sea-birds, sea snakes and the occasional turtle in the region affected by the slick. It comes at a time when the company has also reported deaths of 16 out of 25 oil affected birds at Ashmore reef.

For the two months since the accident happened we have had an oil slick visible from space, covering an area of thousands of square kilometers. The size, extent and duration means that hundreds if not thousands of our most precious wildlife will have been exposed to the toxic effects of oil, as well as untold damage to the underwater ecosystem and contamination of the food chain. If this was oil off our favourite beaches and swimmers and surfers were at risk, then there would be public outrage. Out of sight should not mean out of mind.

We know from the Exxon Valdez disaster that impacts from an oil spill can be seen 20 years later, so we can expect this environmental disaster will continue to unfold for years to come.

See more images here.

On his Crikey blog, The Northern Myth, Bob Gosford writes:

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.

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 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 1200 barrels a day.

Peter Fray

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