NEWS - Oil platform spill a disaster in the making says conservation group

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Leak still unplugged and will take another month to cap

On August 21, the West Atlas drill rig began spewing 400 barrels of oil a day into the Timor Sea, and a month later, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) says the statistics paint a picture of a major ecological disaster in the making for Australia's marine environment.

"This is the third largest oil spill in Australia's history and the single largest from an oil platform in our waters," said Darren Kindleysides, AMCS director.

AMCS said 1200 tonnes of oil have already polluted the ocean with a slick that has covered 15,000km² of sea.

"The leak is still unplugged and will take another month to cap. This is a disaster that risks blowing out further in terms of its scale and impact on the ocean," Kindleysides said.

AMCS said the Timor Sea is globally important for its marine wildlife and the spill has occurred right in the middle of a marine 'superhighway' for whales, turtles and seabirds as well as being close to unspoilt reefs and coral atolls.

"Oil and wildlife just don't mix. The reported numbers of dead and oiled seabirds are just the tip of the iceberg. For every animal recovered dead, tens to hundreds die unseen. The unfolding crisis for wildlife needs urgent attention," Kindleysides added.

AMCS said 70,000 litres of dispersant have already been sprayed on this slick, but as oil is dispersed into the water column, the effects on the ocean ecosystem and marine food chains can be significant and long-lived. AMCS added that fisheries affected by major tanker spills in Europe and the US remained closed for years afterwards.

"Dispersants give a false sense that we're dealing with the impact of the spill, but often they are just moving the toxic problem from the surface to elsewhere in the water column," said Kindleysides.

AMCS said the seas off Western Australia are becoming a major frontier for oil and gas development and as development continues to expand, there is increased risk of this sort of incident occurring again.

"Less than one per cent of the oceans to the north and west of Australia are protected within marine sanctuaries. In other words, 99 per cent remain open for fishing and development. The West Atlas oil rig disaster highlights the desperate need to redress the balance," Kindleysides said.

"The West Atlas spill underlines the heavy burden oil and gas development can impose on our precious marine environment and the need for Government to shoulder the responsibility for protecting our seas from its impacts," he said.

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