For the second time in six months, an environmental disaster is threatening a pristine coral reef and UNESCO World Heritage site.
A cargo ship ran aground in the Solomon Islands during bad weather in February, spilling tons of oil near the world-famous reef, known as East Rennell.
Now, another cargo ship has spilled more than 5,500 tons of bauxite — the primary ore used to produce aluminum — in the same area. The Guardian reports the rock slipped into Kangava Bay July 1 while it was being loaded onto a barge, turning the normally turquoise water a dark reddish-brown.
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The ship that ran aground in February was also loading bauxite at the time. Both ships were owned by the same company, Bintan Mining Solomon Islands. Bauxite mining is one of the few sources of revenue for local communities, but spills like this can spell disaster for them. More than 1,200 people call East Rennell home, living primarily by subsistence gardening, hunting and fishing.
After the oil spill, children were warned not to swim in the water and fishing was banned. But the Guardian notes many continued to fish for lack of other food sources. Test results are pending on whether the fish was contaminated.
People have been advised not to fish once again, but children are continuing to swim and play in the water. Lawrence Nodua, a spokesman for Oceanswatch Solomon Islands, told the Guardian there were reports some children were suffering from skin irritation caused by the water.
Experts say accidental spills of bauxite during the loading process could leave the ocean floor covered, making the water murky. This, in turn, could damage or kill corals that need sunlight to survive and attract fish the locals depend on for food.
The shipping carrier is negotiating with its insurer over cleanup costs, but they are expected to take time.
East Rennell is the largest raised coral atoll in the world. It was added to the World Heritage list in 1998, but was put on UNESCO’s danger list in 2013 due to logging and overfishing.