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 November 02, 2009
Massive Timor Sea Oil Spill

 A disastrous fire and oil slick contaminate one of the world's remote and pristine oceans.

For nearly two and a half months, a massive oil slick has been boiling up out of the Timor Sea halfway between Australia and Timor, the result of a disastrous fire and rupture 2.5 kilometers under the ocean that has defied all efforts so far to plug it or mop it up.

The West Atlas deep sea oil rig, operated by PTTEP Australasia, a unit of the Thailand state-owned PTT Exploration & Production PLC, blew out on August 21 and the crew abandoned the rig because of the fire. According to news sources, it has leaked more than 400,000 liters of oil, gas and condensate into the Timor Sea at a rate reported as being from 300 to 1,200 barrels a day, and now covers an area estimated at 6,000 square kilometers.

Australian Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett told the Australian television news channel ABC that: "The fact of the matter is, it's a fiendishly difficult exercise -- a little bit like threading the needle -- to try to get this oil spill stopped."

The spill, in one of the world's most remote and pristine oceanic regions, occurred in an area shared by East Timor, Indonesia and the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone where maritime borders are not recognized. It has largely escaped the notice of the world's press, although bloggers in on Timor Island, which is shared by Indonesia and East Timor, have been reporting extensively on it, and the World Wildlife Fund has issued reports that describe the environmental consequences as disastrous. Seaweed, one of the nearby West Timor province's most important commodities, has been badly polluted along with thronging fish populations.

PTTEP Australasia reported on its website Monday that the company is preparing 4,000 barrels of heavy mud to pour down a relief well into the breach in an effort to staunch the flow of oil and hopes to put out the fire tomorrow. No personnel have been on the deep-sea platform since August 21, when the fire started. The release quoted PPTEP director and Chief Financial Officer Jose Martins as saying "Eyewitness reports today indicate there is little or no oil being released into the ocean from the Montara well head platform. This is an indication that the oil and gas is burning off from the well head platform fire."

According to a marine wildlife study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund, "The area affected by the Montara oil spill off the Kimberley coast contains a huge amount of marine life, including some of the most iconic and threatened species in the ocean. The biosphere includes dolphins, migratory sea birds, sea snakes and marine turtles, many of which have been recorded by the WWF to be swimming through the toxic oil

"We recorded hundreds of dolphins and sea birds in the oil slick area, as well as sea snakes and threatened hawksbill and flatback turtles," the report quoted WWF-Australia's Director of Conservation Dr Gilly Llewellyn, who led the team of ecologists.

As many as 10,000 communities rely on the Timor Sea for sustenance, with some 7,000 fishermen plying the waters. Some residents on small islands say they are suffering from skin problems and diarrhea from eating contaminated fish

The WWF's Llewellyn called the actual situation a "stark contrast to comments made this week by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) that claimed our survey found no evidence of harm to marine life. This is clearly a false representation of our results and appears to be an attempt to sweep this environmental disaster under the carpet.

Overall the expedition recorded 17 species of seabirds, four species of cetacean and five marine reptiles including two species of marine turtle. At least eleven of the species were listed migratory and two - hawksbill and flatback turtles - are listed as threatened with extinction under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Wildlife is being destroyed over a wide area and "hundreds if not thousands of dolphins, seabirds and sea-snakes are being exposed to toxic oil," Llewellyn said. "The critical issue is the long term impact of this slick on a rich marine ecosystem, taking into consideration the magnitude, extent and duration of the event."

The Indonesian regional environmental management team in East Nusa Tenggara province reported last week that the spill now covers an area at least 100 times the size of Sydney Harbor in Australia.
Indonesia's Directorate of Marine Transportation at the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs began monitoring pollution levels in the Timor Sea on Oct. 23 to determine the severity of the problem after local fishermen reported finding clumps of crude oil in the country's Exclusive Economic Zone. Local fishermen were quoted as saying they had discovered hundreds of dead fish in Indonesian waters.

Although current weather conditions are relatively stable, the seasonal monsoonal cycle begins in the coming months and is expected to change have an even more drastic effect on the spill, roiling the waters and scattering it further into Indonesian and Timorese waters.

Once it is stopped, the trouble may be just beginning. A study sponsored by UNESCO and eight Arabian gulf governments as well as the United States, the massive spill that occurred during the 1991 Gulf War did far less damage to the oceans than originally anticipated. Saddam Hussain ordered Iraqi forces to open valves at the Sea Island oil terminal and dumped oil from several tankers into the Persian Gulf in an effort to thwart a potential US Marine landing. About half the oil evaporated, a million barrels were recovered and 2 million to 3 million barrels washed ashore, mainly in Saudi Arabia, the study found.

Cold water remediation may be more troublesome. According to the science website Science Daily, 18 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill contaminated 1,100 miles of coastline in Alaska, it was still causing environmental problems. "Every indication tells us that the oil should have biodegraded," Michel Boufadel, chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Temple's College of Engineering, told the publication. "But what we've seen is there are still plenty of places where the oil still exists."

According to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the website reported, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey and Alaskan agencies found that oil levels in the sands around the sound are much the same as they were when tests were done five years ago. The study said oil had seeped down 4 to 10 inches into the sands.