By CARLOS ARUAFU
TWO barge-full of bauxite were thrown overboard on the day the stricken bulk carrier Solomon Trader ran aground on Rennell island.
Villagers relayed this to the Solomon Star during a visit to the disaster site over the weekend.
Hong Kong registered Solomon Trader was at Rennell to load bauxite from Bintan’s mining operations there when rough seas forced the vessel onto the reefs at Lughu Bay on the night of February 4.
“On the night Solomon Trade ran aground, two barges filled with bauxite were also forced onto the reefs,” chief Raymond Sau, an eye-witness of Avatai village told the Solomon Star.
It’s understood Bintan used the barges to carry the bauxite from land to the bulk carrier.
Chief Sau remembered workers throwing the bauxite overboard the next day on February 5 while they worked to save the barges from sinking.
“From our village we could see them, using machinery to throw the bauxite soil from the barges into the bay,” Sau said.
“We shouted at them to stop, but they would not listen. They continued to empty the two barges until they were pulled to safety,” he added.
“When the soils from the barges were thrown into the bay, the colour of the sea instantly changes.
“We believe the bauxite contributed to the odious smell, killing of fish and marine life, and contamination of our fresh water supply.”
Sau’s account of events was corroborated by other villagers spoken to.
According to Associate Prof Dr Habibah Jamil from the Science and Technology Faculty at University Kebangsaan, Malaysia, Bauxite has a high content of aluminium hydroxide, iron oxide and chromium other than clay.
“Once it enters the sea, it contaminates it as well as marine resources and other ecosystems.
“These elements are inside the fine dust and can also be absorbed into the body through inhalation,” Professor Jamil was quoted as saying in a news article published by www.malaymail.com.news in 2016.
Sau believed the discharged bauxite, subsequent oil spill, and now diesel spill from Solomon Trader all contributed to the pollution that has now affected their sea and coastline.
A week after the vessel ran aground, oil started to spill out from the ship’s hull into the harbor.
Two weeks after the oil spill, visible signs of diesel were seen floating from the ship and is slowly spreading throughout the bay.
Villagers believe toxic from the bauxite soil also played a role in the damage to marine life they are witnessing.
Australian experts monitoring the situation say about 80 tonnes of oil have already spilled into the bay and spread to some 600 kilometres away from the vessel.
More than 700 tonnes of Mobile Gas Diesel fuel were on board the ship.
In the wake of the environmental pollution, the Tehakatu’u Tribe Association of West Rennell wrote to the national government to assess the health situation in the area.
In response, the Ministry of Health and Medical services is sending a team to assess the health and safety of the people that are exposed to the odious smell from the oil.
The team will help assess the contaminated water sources and the extent of the dangers facing the villagers there.
They will also conduct awareness to the people about the dangers and effects of oil spill pollution.
Villager spokesman Derek Pongi thanked the ministry for the prompt response to their call.
Meanwhile, Bintan says the operation to salvage the grounded vessel to safety is being boosted with the arrival of three more international specialists from the United Kingdom and United States over the weekend.
By CARLOS ARUAFU