Blame game begins as grounded ship in the Solomon Islands leaks oil

Photo taken on 26 February by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority near Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands shows Solomon Trader grounded and leaking oil. Credit: AMSA

Solomon Island authorities are investigating whether crew were allocated on watch at the time the Hong Kong flagged bulk carrier Solomon Trader ran aground on 5 February.

The investigation will examine a possible breach of the International Safety Management Code, Solomon Islands Maritime Safety administration acting director, Jonah Mitau told media outlets.

The ship’s master, chief officer, chief engineer and second engineer have been requested to remain in the country for further questioning.

Both the company and insurers have also come under heavy criticism for the slow response to the grounding, which led to an oil spill contaminating villages and fishing grounds adjacent to the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Aerial assessments conducted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) show the oil spill spanning five to six kilometres across the shore and moving towards the adjacent World Heritage area.

“The shipowner and the insurer have not moved quickly enough,” Rod Brazier, Australian High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands told Australia’s national broadcaster. “It took two weeks for the oil to leak from the Solomon Trader. Nearly a month later we are only beginning to see signs of efforts to pump the  remainder of the fuel oil off.”

Brazier also questioned why Bintan Mining company was loading bauxite during a heavy wind warning and a cyclone alert. The company is denying all responsibility.

The Solomon Islands government asked for assistance from Australia, with New Zealand, Vanuatu, Singapore, the United States and Europe also providing aid.

“Given escalating ecological damage, and a lack of action by commercial entities involved, the Solomon Islands Government has requested Australia’s assistance,” Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs announced on 3 March. “We are mobilising an offshore pollution mitigation operation.”

In a statement, the insurer Korea Protection and Indemnity Club (KP&I) and owner of the stricken vessel King Trader Ltd (King Trader) have expressed  a “sincere apology”.

The statement said the Indonesian-based Bintan Mining chartered vessel loaded with nearly 11,000 tonnes of bauxite, initially grounded “during an unexpected gale event”.

“King Trader secured a local tug to try and remove the vessel in a timely manner, however the situation worsened with the arrival of Cyclone Omar (sic), which pushed the stricken vessel harder into the reef, resulting in hull and engine room damage.”

“Salvage was delayed due to the vessel’s power being lost and the remote and hazardous location making it difficult to secure local resources,” according to the statement.

The company denies that crew were absent from the vessel or intoxicated at the time of the grounding.