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Western Australia oil spill a potential disaster for marine life

26/08/2009 08:42:26

Marine life in the region will be highly vulnerable to oil pollution. Flatback turtle hatchling (c) Katherine Howard.

New oil and gas facilities planned for Class A Nature Reserve

August 2009. WWF has warned that an oil spill off Australia's North West coast may take a heavy toll on the region's globally significant wildlife. The oil & gas is spilling from a rig in the Timor Sea and it will take several weeks for the leak to be plugged. The leak is some 3.6 kilometers below the sea surface, and a second rig is being towed from Singapore to help plug the leak. The spll is currently some 15 kilomteres long, and growing every day.

Turtles especially at risk
Dr Gilly Llewellyn, WWF-Australia's Conservation Manager said "This is a potential disaster for turtles, whales, dolphins, sea birds and sea snakes. The oil and gas spill is still not under control and is expected to continue leaking for two months. Depending on winds, the slick could be pushed to atolls like Scott and Ashmore Reef - areas that are globally significant for their unique wildlife."

Marine species such as green and loggerhead turtles are at serious risk from the pollution.

"Turtle hatchlings spend a huge amount of time on the surface of the water. Unfortunately, this means that recent hatchlings from the beaches and islands of North West Australia could be swimming into the slick," said Dr Llewellyn.
The spill occurred at the edge of Australia's continental shelf, an ocean highway used by loggerhead turtles, dolphins and endangered species such as the pygmy blue whale. WWF warned that increasing the number of offshore oil and gas ventures in the region is significantly increasing the risk to marine life.

"The more industrial activity, the higher the risk - it is a simple equation," said Dr Llewellyn. "We urgently need to consider both short and long term ways of preventing and containing spills like this one, as well as reducing the footprint of industrial development on creatures like marine turtles."

New gas plant planned for Barrow Island - Class A nature reserve
As the Federal Government prepares to release its environmental assessment of the proposed Gorgon liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on Barrow Island, a Class A nature reserve and important rookery for flatback turtles, WWF is calling on all parties to consider safer alternative locations for the massive project.

"We strongly urge the Government and oil companies involved to move the proposed LNG plant to the mainland to reduce the risk of harm to our marine wildlife," said Dr Llewellyn.

WWF has suggested Ashburton North, on the Western Australian coast may be more suitable for gas processing.

Mainland alternative
Chevron, one of three companies involved in the Gorgon project (along with Exxon Mobil and Shell) has already filed applications to develop another LNG project in the vicinity. By building infrastructure on the mainland, both the environmental and economic costs of such projects could be reduced.

"The environmental challenges on the mainland are by no means trivial, but they are vastly more manageable than at Barrow. This decision needs to be made urgently and should be the highest priority for the Government," said Dr Llewellyn.

The location of oil and gas infrastructure would not be enough to ensure the safety of some of the world's most diverse marine ecosystems.

"To seriously address the long term health and survival of marine species we need to build a network of large marine sanctuaries for Australia's north west which can act as a safety net, giving animals safe passage through the oceans."

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