Villagers on a Solomons island devastated by an oil spill from a beached ship have appealed for urgent food and water supplies, as tensions rise with the Asian miners they blame for the unfolding environmental disaster.

The Hong Kong-owned bulk carrier Solomon Trader was driven onto rocks by Cyclone Oma at Lughu Bay on the island of West Rennell on February 5 while loading a shipment of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum.

More than 80 tons of heavy fuels, including bunker oil, have since leaked from the vessel, destroying fish and poisoning water sources that support the 300 inhabitants in an area where most have subsistence lifestyles.

“We cannot go fishing for fears of fish poisoning and the sea is also very dirty,” Avatai village chief Raymond Sau told the Solomon Star website.

“The opening of streams at the sea’s shores have been covered with oil so we cannot get fresh water to drink. These streams are our only hope for fresh water when we experience dry seasons,” Sau added.

Thousands of dead fish have washed up on the foreshore of Lughu Bay, which is part of a heritage site listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Rennell Island, also called Mugaba, is the world’s largest raised coral atoll, covering 840 square kilometers.

Sau said that toxic fumes from the spilled oil were causing health issues. “During the day it’s okay, but when night comes we have a hard time breathing due to the bad smell from the spilled oil,” he said. “Some people including children have fallen sick due to this odious smell.”

Oil washes ashore at Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands, February 2019. Photo: Twitter

Authorities in the Solomons were slow to react to the disaster because of extreme weather conditions during the cyclone and a lack of resources. There are fears that the 600 tons of oil still onboard the ship could spill.

Australia sent a surveillance aircraft to assess the damage once conditions had improved and diverted a naval ship equipped to clean up the mess. On March 4, it sent additional help, including a team of specialists, who reported that the leaking oil had spread about 6 kilometers along the foreshore.

“Given escalating ecological damage, and a lack of action by commercial entities involved, the Solomon Islands government has requested Australia’s assistance,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in Canberra.

Her barbed reference to the lack of assistance by the ship’s owners hinted at growing anger in the Solomons over the sluggish response to the massive spill.

Australia and the Solomons government are pressuring Hong Kong-based shipping and charter firm South Express to take responsibility, but it has reportedly said the ship is leased by Bintan Mining to carry bauxite.

Bintan is based in the Solomons but registered in the British Virgin Islands. Its parent is believed to be Asia Pacific Investment Development (APID), which also appears to be based in Hong Kong, according to media reports.

APID was granted a license in 2008 to prospect for bauxite and other minerals on West Rennell. Work halted because of the global financial crisis and the license had to be renewed in 2012; it was then suspended in 2015 after landowners complained that APID had illegally extracted timber from the island.

A shipment of logs was impounded, but mining activities later resumed.

Local residents claim that Bintan workers contributed to the oil spill crisis by tossing bauxite ore overboard from barges as the ship went aground. The barges were being used to haul bauxite out to the anchored ship.

“From our village we could see them, using machinery to throw the bauxite soil from the barges into the bay,” Sau said. “When the soils from the barges were thrown into the bay, the color of the sea instantly changes. We shouted at them to stop, but they would not listen. They continued to empty the two barges until they were pulled to safety.”

Some landowners initially benefited financially from the mining activities, but relations have become strained due to wanton destruction of the landscape and social issues imported by the largely Asian workforce.

In April last year, a women’s group called for authorities to screen the workers before they were given visas, after blaming them for an upsurge in unwanted pregnancies and alcohol and drug abuse. It was also alleged that some workers were victims of a human trafficking syndicate.

Children look out to sea from the Red Beach landing site near Honiara in the Solomon Islands in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Torsten Blackwood

An official at the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Labor and Immigration said no evidence had been submitted of undesirable activities by the workers. Most of the foreigners are employed at the mines or by logging firms.

APID’s license appears to give it an exclusive right to extract bauxite. In 2015, the firm won a high court ruling against an Indonesian firm, Bintang Borneo, that was given a separate license; Bintang Indonesia does not appear to have any connection to Bintan Mining, the subsidiary of APID.

Authorities impounded 56,000 tons of bauxite that had been stockpiled for export, but villagers said Bintang was still mining despite the ban. It is not clear whether the company has since ceased all extraction activities.