OIL spill response continues on the MV Solomon Trader, grounded on 5 February on a reef off Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands.

The bulk carrier was carrying more than 700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil when it ran aground in Kangava Bay, adjacent to a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A statement from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is assisting the Solomon Islands government in the salvage efforts, said Aerial assessments conducted by AMSA have confirmed “extensive oil leakage” around the ship, which has started to disperse across the surrounding sea and shoreline.

“The oil spans five to six kilometres across the shore and is moving towards the adjacent World Heritage area,” the statement reads.

“There is a high risk the remaining heavy fuel oil on the vessel (currently estimated at more than 600 tonnes) will be released into the surrounding area.”

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The DFAT statement noted that the responsibility to salvage the vessel and mitigate the environmental impact of the incident rests with the commercial entities involved, particularly the vessel owner and its insurer.

“Australia has been profoundly disappointed by the slow response of these companies and their lack of adequate communications with and responsiveness to the Solomon Islands government,” DFAT said.

“Given escalating ecological damage, and a lack of action by commercial entities involved, the Solomon Islands government requested Australia’s assistance on 16 February.”

DFAT said it was providing technical advice and assistance to inform government assessments and action, and also supporting the Solomon Islands government in its dealings with the responsible entities.

“As requested by the Solomon Islands government, Australia will act, as appropriate, to minimise the impacts of the spill while ensuring we do not diminish in any way the fundamental obligations of responsible parties to properly contain and manage this incident.”

An eight-person spill response crew from AMSA has been deployed, along with specialised equipment from Australia and Honiara, with further vessels and personnel from Australia being deployed , including embedded personnel from Maritime New Zealand.

The Solomon Trader’s insurer (Korea P&I Club) and owner (King Trader Ltd) have issued an apology to the people of the Solomon Islands following the vessel’s grounding.

A press release from Korea P&I described the situation as “totally unacceptable” and said King Trader secured a local tug to remove the vessel from the reef, but the operation was thwarted by Cyclone Omar, which pushed the vessel harder onto the reef, and damaged the hull and engine room.

The press release pointed to several factors that have impacted the salvage operations, including loss of power on the vessel and the remote and hazardous location.

Also, inclement weather has made it difficult and at times impossible to access the vessel, with conditions too dangerous for external underwater inspections.

Korea P&I said another setback was that the vessel was “ransacked” after the crew was evacuated, with onboard recorks that might have assisted with the salvage operation being removed or damaged.

Some onboard power has been restored, enabling a deck crane to lift salvage equipment onboard.

Transferring fuel oil on the vessel to higher and safer tanks has been progressing, with plans for the oil to be pumped onto a barge due to arrive soon from Vanuatu.

Korea P&I said another priority was to deal with the fuel oil that has leaked into the waters, with boom placement and shoreline cleaning underway.

The P&I club said reports that the crew was absent from the vessel or intoxicated at the time of the initial grounding were false. Chartered by Indonesia-based Bintan Mining, the Solomon Trader, loaded with nearly 11,000 tonnes of bauxite, initially grounded on 5 February.

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