West Atlas oil spill highlights response shortcomings



West Atlas drill

The West Atlas mobile drilling rig.

Credit: Seadrill

- Advertisement -

The large oil spill wallowing off the coast of Darwin may take as long as eight weeks to clean up, comes with a hefty dollar price tag and is causing immeasurable environmental damage, experts have said.

In the early hours of Friday morning, light crude oil and natural gas began leaking from the West Atlas Oil rig in the Timor Sea, 690 km west of Darwin and 250 km northwest of Truscott, Western Australia.

Emergency action plans were activated and Hercules aircraft equipped with oil dispersal agents were called in from Singapore.

Tracey Jiggins, a spokesperson from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said petroleum exploration company PTTEP Australasia has taken full responsibility for the leak and is working with authorities to contain the spill and prevent additional leakage.

"It's a day by day operation," she said, and dispersal agents will be released "every single day until the leak has stopped."

According to PTTEP, 150 litres of oil was released into the ocean and has continued to leak since Friday, creating an oil slick eight nautical miles long and 30 meters wide.

Another oil rig is on it's way from Singapore to carry out repairs on the damaged station, but it will take up to 20 days to arrive - and repairs may take as long as eight weeks.

The company has not outlined the cause of the spill.

Greens Senator and marine spokesperson Rachel Siewert said the response was not swift enough and the company needs to be more forthcoming with information about the cause of the spill given it's size and potential environmental impacts.

"We have limited information on what is currently occurring out there, what actually happened out there, how did it happen, or when they expect to get it under control," she said.

When a spill is reported the National Plan to Combat Pollution of the Sea by Oil and other Noxious and Hazardous Substances is initiated and dispersal agents brought in from one of the seven locations around the Australia.

Due to the remoteness of the spill, supplies were flown in from Singapore and Darwin.

Siewert said there needs to be more stock available around the coast to reduce the severity of spills.

"Before any further development is undertaken closer to the Kimberley coast, we need to ensure that emergency response teams are situated closer than Victoria or the WA wheatbelt, as this instance has shown that the increased response time could potentially result in further environmental damage," she said.

"This area has been dubbed a 'marine superhighway'. There are populations of baby turtles this time of year, and the area also serves as a migratory route for whales and other marine life."

Darren Kindleysides, Director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, also expressed concern and said the government should be doing more to protect the environment.

"As development continues to expand off Western Australia, there will be an increased risk of this sort of incident occurring again," he said.

"We need to be safeguarding the most important parts of Australia's seas," he said. "Prevention is better than a cure."