Oil spill fears for ship stranded on Pacific reef

WELLINGTON (AFP) – A bulk carrier stranded on a coral reef off the Solomon Islands is being battered by heavy seas whipped up in a tropical cyclone, sparking fears a major environmental disaster.

Officials said water had already breached the hull of the MV Solomon Trader, which ran aground on February 5, and one unconfirmed report said oil was leaking from the vessel.

The 225-metre ship hit a reef near Rennell Island, the largest raised coral atoll in the world, part of which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) told Radio New Zealand that salvage efforts had been hampered by Cyclone Oma’s presence in the area.

“The boat is still on the reef and that water is coming into the engine room, which means that the hull of the ship has been breached,” NDMO director Loti Yates told the broadcaster.

While the ship was carrying a cargo of bauxite, any such large vessel would also have large amounts of oil and fuel for its engines. Yates said there was “no sign of oil spillage” although the Guardian, citing government sources, said there was some leakage which was forming a slick.

Island Sun News reported the Hong Kong-flagged ship’s owners Bintan Mining had flown in salvage experts from Australia and the United States.

“As soon as weather permits, the salvagers hope to successfully re-float the vessel, do further assessments and decide on possibilities to move the vessel to dry dock,” it quoted the company as saying.