An Oil Spill Fouls a Tropical Eden Already Scarred by Mining

By Anonymous

KANGAVA BAY, Rennell Island — On Rennell Island, a wild, windswept speck in the Pacific Ocean, water binds everything, from its teeming tropical rain forest to its craggy limestone cliffs.

It is the lifeblood of the island’s impoverished people, a source of income and sustenance. But a spill of hundreds of tons of heavy fuel oil from a cargo ship has now fouled the water off its southern coast. And residents have no choice but to keep eating from it.

“They told us there’s poison in the sea,” said William Teikagei, 60, who lives in a shack he built on the beach. “But we have no money, so we still fish.”

An environmental disaster is unfolding here on Rennell, a coral atoll 2,000 miles northeast of Australia that is home to a World Heritage site with a vast lake ringed by dense forest. It began nearly three months ago, when a ship carrying metal ore bound for China slammed into a reef during one of the violent storms that frequently rake this island of fewer than 2,000 people.

The vessel is still leaking fuel, staining the white-sand beaches and imperiling a delicate marine ecosystem — a reminder of the reach and cost of humanity’s operations to extract resources from the planet.

The Polynesian population on Rennell has no phone, television or radio service. Medical care is a flight away in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, which includes Rennell. The islanders have few working vehicles, and the airfield is little more than a grassy paddock along a bumpy dirt road.

But what Rennell does have are mining operations and the infrastructure and foreign workers that come with them. Mining trucks tear past villages day and night, moving through the forest to the port, leaving a trail of dust behind them.

The oil spill is not Rennell’s first mining-related calamity: The operations have gouged red gashes in the coastline and left gaping holes in the forest.

The grounded ship was carrying bauxite, an ore used to make aluminum. Bauxite mining on the western side of Rennell has been shadowed by allegations of rampant corruption, deception of landowners and regulatory violations.

ImageAn Oil Spill Fouls a Tropical Eden Already Scarred by Mining
Local residents have joined the cleanup effort on Rennell. “Do we have a choice?” said one resident, Ribeka Tago. “It’s toxic in the sea.”CreditDavid Maurice Smith for The New York Times

Yet with few prospects for revenue, and with little ability, or perhaps desire, to keep corporate interests in check, the Solomons government has allowed mining and logging at an unsustainable pace.

The Solomon Islands, a nation of hundreds of islands in the western Pacific, is one of the poorest on earth, with an unstable Parliament that frequently changes hands. Honiara is on Guadalcanal, the site of pitched fighting between the United States and Japan during World War II. Until the late 1970s, the country was a British protectorate.

Bauxite mining began in 2014. All of the ore from Rennell goes to China, by far the world’s largest producer of aluminum. Chinese logging is also threatening to wipe out the country’s rain forest. Island residents, however, have seen little in return.

“West Rennell was mined because people were tricked and misled,” said George Tauika, chairman of Lake Tegano World Heritage Site Association. “You can see the damage with the naked eye.”

“People are desperate and believe mining and logging is the only alternative,” he added.

In March, Rick Hou, the Solomon Islands’ incumbent prime minister, said the country was essentially not benefiting from the Rennell mining operation, which was approved under a previous administration.

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Bauxite mining on Rennell, conducted by an Indonesian company called Bintan Mining, has disfigured the land.CreditDavid Maurice Smith for The New York Times

The operator is an Indonesian company, Bintan Mining, whose directors are from China and Hong Kong. Last month, Mr. Hou, in the run-up to an April 3 election, announced an investigation into how the lease for the bauxite mining was issued.

“It is my government’s view that exporting our resources for virtually no economic return is immoral and unacceptable,” he said.

Mr. Hou said the oil spill — now estimated at 300 tons of oil, much more than initially forecast — had caused irreversible damage. And not just to the environment: It has only deepened a sense among Rennell residents that they are a forgotten people. Rennell, the world’s largest raised coral atoll, is the most geographically isolated among the Solomons.

After the 700-foot ship, the Hong Kong-flagged Solomon Trader, ran aground on Feb. 5, it was pushed farther into the reef by a cyclone. The ship had been loading bauxite in Kangava Bay, which is threatened by cyclones from November to April.

The ship’s owner, King Trader, from which Bintan had chartered the vessel, and its insurer, the Korea Protection and Indemnity Club, were slow to react, allowing oil to spill uncontrolled for weeks, Australian officials said.

200 MILES

Pacific Ocean

SOLOMON ISLANDS

Honiara

GUADALCANAL

Coral Sea

100 MILES

FIJI

Coral Sea

AUSTRALIA

Sydney

Soon after the accident, officials declared that oil had spread along more than three miles of coastline. They said that it was approaching the World Heritage site, called East Rennell, which includes the largest lake in the insular Pacific and many endemic land and marine species.

Amid squabbles over liability, the parties involved eventually brought in cleanup equipment and teams under international pressure.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority was asked to lead the effort to sweep up the oil out at sea, and a salvage company, Resolve Marine Group, has led cleanup efforts onshore.

Workers and villagers now roam the shoreline in oil-stained white suits and orange boots, removing the fuel.

“Do we have a choice?” said one resident, Ribeka Tago, when asked why she was helping Resolve. “We are worried,” she continued, adding, “It’s toxic in the sea.”

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Esther Lakaniu, 67, and her husband, William Teikagei, 60, at their home in Kangava Bay. They can see the grounded ship from their house.CreditDavid Maurice Smith for The New York Times

Villagers say they have felt sick after breathing oil fumes in the searing heat. Their skin itches, and their children have been vomiting, they say.

On March 7, Mr. Hou, the prime minister, said his government was considering temporarily halting loading activities at the port run by Bintan. He stopped short of suspending mining operations.

But in a surprise move, Mr. Hou said he had instructed officials to investigate how a company called Asia Pacific Investment Development obtained a mining lease. Bintan mines the bauxite under contract with that company.

A report by the nation’s attorney general has already found that the lease was granted without a recommendation from the country’s Mines and Minerals Board — a breach of law.

In 2015, Asia Pacific Investment Development was found guilty of illegal logging in the Solomons. Experts said the company had reinvented itself for bauxite mining but employed the same tactics it used in the logging industry.

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Young people on the shore of Lake Tegano, the largest lake in the insular Pacific and part of a World Heritage site.CreditDavid Maurice Smith for The New York Times

“Rennell demonstrates how corporate actors have colluded with national-level political and bureaucratic elites,” said Matthew Allen, a professor at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, who has written a book about mining in the region.

Mr. Allen cited local accounts that middlemen had paved the way for Asia Pacific Investment Development, and then Bintan, by making good-will payments and providing all-expenses-paid trips to Honiara, the capital.

But while Mr. Hou has taken a harsher tone after the oil spill, he has not exactly cracked down on Bintan. His government issued prospecting licenses to the company for nearby islands a day after he called its activities immoral.

Asked to comment for this article, Bintan sent clips of a news article about its lawsuit against the shipowner.

The sites where Bintan operates were supposed to be mined in phases and progressively rehabilitated, according to an environmental impact assessment. But that never happened.

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Mining trucks tear past villages day and night, moving through the forest to the port, leaving a trail of dust behind them.CreditDavid Maurice Smith for The New York Times

One resident, Tupuitenuku Hu’aitemanongi, accused Bintan of digging on his ancestral lands, destroying graveyards and other important sites.

“Some of my family members and relatives were harmed in our first encounter, and though we reported them to the police in Rennell, they did nothing,” he said.

People rely on the slim pickings from the mining. But not everyone benefits from royalties, employment or the basic facilities the company provides, leaving the island divided.

“They work on our land,” said Obed Saueha, chief of the Tenuginuku tribe. “But we don’t have any power.”

Still, residents want the wrecked ship out of their sight. Words scrawled in red paint on the Solomon Trader make that clear. “Sorry, it’s time to go,” it reads.

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