For the Second Time in Six Months, a Mining Ship Has Polluted This World-Famous Reef

The first bauxite spill back in February.
The first bauxite spill back in February.
Photo: AP

Months after a cargo ship ran aground and began spilling heavy fuel near Rennell Island’s world-famous coral reef, another ship has reportedly spilled more than 5,500 tons of bauxite, the ore mined for aluminum, in the same location in the Solomon Islands.

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The spill occurred July 1, according to the Guardian, turning Kangava Bay’s typically teal waters a striking clay red. A separate ship spilled more than 100 tons of oil into the eastern side of this same bay in February after strong waves pushed the ship into a reef. This time, however, weather wasn’t to blame. The bauxite ore, which is being mined from Rennell Island, “slipped” into the water during loading, reports the Guardian. Both times, the barges were owned by Bintan Mining Company, per Radio New Zealand.

These contamination events spell trouble for the local reef ecosystem, which is so special that the site sits on the UNESCO World Heritage List. They’re also having an impact on the roughly 1,200 people who live on the island, including members of the Tehakatu’u tribe, as they typically collect rainwater to drink and fish from the bay for food.

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Last time, community members struggled with drinking water and food in wake of the disaster. People are being advised not to fish again, Derek Pongi, the Tehakatu’u Development Association chairman, told Earther via Facebook. But while Pongi says some are resorting to processed canned foods, The Guardian reports that other people aren’t heeding these warnings. Meanwhile, children continue to swim and play in the water, according to photos provided by Pongi.

Children play in the contaminated red waters of Kangava Bay.
Children play in the contaminated red waters of Kangava Bay.
Photo: Courtesy of Derek Pongi

The Tehakatu’u Development Association has been providing water to locals and has contributed almost $500 (4,000 Solomon Island Dollars) to the community since last week’s spill. They’ll need every dollar; this spill could impact the coral reefs permanently if they struggle to find sunlight beneath all the bauxite powder, per the Guardian. If corals die, it’s possible not as many fish will come to the bay anymore.

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The environmental assessment for the last spill should wrap by July 17, according to the Guardian. In wake of this latest spill, Tehakatu’u Development Association will try to commission an independent assessment, said Pongi to Earther.  

So far, there’s no news on when clean up will begin or how long it’ll take for this most recent disasterbut the government needs to hurry up. People’s well-being is on the line.

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The contaminated water in Kangava Bay bleeds red.
The contaminated water in Kangava Bay bleeds red.
Photo: Courtesy of Derek Pongi

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Whenever there’s a spill of raw material (or anything that shouldn’t be spilled), it’s good to go to the source. From a little googling:

The company involved in this mess is is Pacific Bauxite Limited, an Australian Company.

The latest (and reportedly biggest) project in the Solomon Islands is called the Nendo bauxite project. It’s in a messy court battle. From S&P: (bolding done by me):

Pacific Bauxite Ltd. suspended exploration at its Nendo bauxite project in the Solomon Islands after the minister of mines, energy and rural electrification canceled the prospecting license hosting the project in late May.

The company said the cancellation of PL 01/16, held by its 50%-owned joint venture subsidiary Eight South Investments Pty. Ltd., was “completely unexpected.”

According to a June 6 company release, the minister’s order pointed out “unsatisfactory level of prospecting” at the Nendo license and a “failure to establish amicable relations with the local communities” as reasons for the cancellation.

What else did I learn from googling this? From etymology online:

Bauxite: “clayey mineral containing aluminum,” 1861, from French bauxite (1821), from Les Baux, near Arles, in France, where it first was found. The place name is from Provençal Li Baus, literally “the precipices.”

edits: cleaned up the superfluous