[Australia] A fisherman who stumbled upon pools of oil in the Timor Sea says he first thought his boat was leaking. Then he looked around and it was everywhere: a thick coating over the water’s surface.
“I thought I’d spilt some oil out of the boat, but then it was all around me. There was a lot of it, there was no doubt about that,” the fisherman said.
“It was so far away from everyone at the time, nobody really noticed it, the public didn’t notice it.”
The oil was leaking from an oil well off the West Australian coast. According to some estimates, it was dumping 500,000 litres per day in the ocean.
But because it was so far from the Australian mainland, the impact to Australia was minimal. Elsewhere, it was anything but.
The Montara oil spill, which took place six years ago this week, was one of Australia’s worst oil disasters. We barely noticed it then and we haven’t paid a great deal of attention since.
A new report and a class-action lawsuit might make us pay attention.
Last month the Australian Lawyers Alliance released the After the Spill report, detailing over 250 pages of impacts on small, poor communities around Indonesia.
The report documented dead fish and oil sightings as well as skin conditions and food poisoning suffered by locals. It highlighted how seaweed farmers have been affected and how the Australian government, despite clear evidence, failed to hold the responsible parties accountable.
HOW DID IT ALL GO SO WRONG?
On August 21, 2009, the West Atlas rig owned by the Norwegian-Bermudan Seadrill and operated by Perth-based operation PTTEP Australasia Montara sprung a leak.
For 74 days, gas and oil poured into the Timor Sea. Some estimates put the leakage at 500,000 litres per day, others range from between 400 and 2000 barrels of oil per 24 hours.
The well operator rushed to remove 69 staff from the Montara oil field and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority sprayed more than 180,000 litres of dispersants into the water.
The ALA report states the impacts were widespread and continue today.
“Communities say that in 2009 they saw oil washing into seaweed farms, onto beaches, onto the hulls of boats, and fouling fishing grounds and trawler nets. Witnesses described coral turning white; the precious farmed seaweed turning yellow, then white and falling off its ropes, destroyed,” the After the Spill report said.
“Communities described the white ‘sickness’ that later appeared on the seaweed and which worsened with specific currents. Fishermen said that there are no longer any fish to catch in fishing grounds which they have fished for years. The death of mangroves removed a crucial bulwark to the ocean and there was subsequent flooding of villages.
“Indonesia’s Centre for Energy and Environmental Studies has estimated that the economic loss caused by the Montara spill to the fishing and seaweed industries in NTT amounts to approximately AU$1.5 billion per year since 2009.”
In 2010, the Indonesian government requested compensation from PTTEP Australasia. Four years later, in September 2014, they wrote to the Australian government requesting assistance. They asked Prime Minister Tony Abbott to put pressure on PTTEP to carry out a thorough investigation and compensate those who’ve lost money or, worse, their livelihoods.
According to the ALA, Australia has done no such thing.
“The Australian government has not, at any stage, required that PTTEP Australasia take any action to ensure that Indonesia was not adversely affected by the spill. Instead, the Australian government has continued to assert that any negotiations must be between the Indonesian government and PTTEP Australasia,” the ALA report said.
AFTER THE SPILL
The Thai national petroleum exploration company (PTTEP) took immediate responsibility for the oil spill. The company declared it had “transformed” its management culture, operational capabilities, safety processes and environmental systems since 2009.
“In August 2011 the company pleaded guilty to four charges in the Darwin Magistrates Court relating to workplace health and safety and failure to maintain good oilfield practice. The company was fined $510,000. This concluded all government legal matters in relation to the Montara incident,” PTTEP said on its website.
The company conducted scientific studies and concluded there “has been little or no detectable impact from the spill on any marine ecosystem or species in the Timor Sea”.
Then Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane told the ALA that “any issues relating to environmental damage in Indonesian waters are a matter for the Indonesian government to take up with the company (PTTEP)”.
Though the company paid a fine and moved on, those affected say the impacts are far worse than what has been reported.
The ALA reported finding “drastic reductions in the incomes of thousands of seaweed farmers and fishermen”, “children and young people being pulled out of education”, “people experiencing strange skin ailments in the years after the spill”, “dead whales” and “dead mangroves and the subsequent flooding of villages”.
The first hand account from the fisherman who spoke with investigators suggests the spill was worse than most people realised.
“[The oil] wasn’t that dark, it was a brown, muddy colour,” he said.
“It was like a clear browny colour, not very noticeably dark oil. Not noticeably a dark oil. Like a cleaner diesel. It smelt like dirty oil out of a truck like used oil, but more of a diesel spill, it smelt like diesel. It was quite noticeable.
“The oil was all over the water- and when you bring the nets up they’re external to the boat and all the nets are basically floating, semi-floating on the surface and you lift them onto your boat, everything semi-floating has to come through that surface oil. My impression was that the whole place was covered in it.”
‘IT’S JUST A BLATANT INJUSTICE’
Australian Fisheries Management expert Richard Mounsey told the ABC he was in the area at the time of the spill working as a consultant to the East Timor government.
“I used to go the beach on my small boat every morning,” Mr Mounsey said.
“When I jumped in the water (in September 2009) to have a snorkel and to look around at the fish and the corals, it was like jumping into foggy water, it was all milky. I hadn’t seen that and I’d been in East Timor off and on for the last eight years.”
Greg Phelps, a lawyer for Darwin-based firm Ward Keller, has been working with the Nusa Tenggara Timur community since 2011. He told Fairfax he expects to launch a class-action lawsuit on behalf of those impacted by the end of the year.
“It’s just a blatant injustice — it’s a tragedy beyond belief in many ways,” he said.
“It is ridiculous that for nearly six years the Australian government has done nothing to help devastated communities when companies in Australia are regularly prosecuted for oil spills of only ten or 20 litres,” Mr Phelps said.
“The government has maintained that it has no jurisdiction to take action however it is clear that the government does have the jurisdiction to open up negotiations.”
Photo: Source: AFP
View original article at: Six years after the Montara oil spill, those who suffered most still seek compensation