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Devastating Heavy Fuel Oil Spill in Solomon Islands Highlights Risks of World’s Dirtiest Fuel

A tragic reminder of the consequences of a heavy fuel oil spill

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© AFP / Getty Images

On February 5th, the MV Solomon Trader (a Hong Kong-flagged bulk carrier) lost its mooring and ran aground on a coral reef off the island of Rennell in the southern Solomon Islands. So far, the damaged vessel has spilled more than 80 tons of heavy fuel oil. This oil is now floating as a three-mile wide viscous coat of tar, marring the once crystal-blue water. And the extent of the spill is expanding, now approaching a UNESCO protected raised coral atoll—the largest of its kind in the world.

What is Heavy Fuel Oil?

Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) is the dirtiest, lowest-quality fuel in the world. While a spill of any type of oil can devastate the marine environment, HFO spills are the worst of the worst due to their persistence. Not only will an HFO spill cause immediate species die-offs—it will also cause lasting impacts that can damage affected ecosystems for decades to come.

Dire Consequences for Local Inhabitants

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© The Guardian
Residents of small villages in this region depend on fish from local waters for sustenance. Since the spill, fishing in the area has been prohibited and villagers must rely on food shipments from the nation’s capital. Even fresh water from nearshore springs is now contaminated.

Worryingly, little progress has been made in cleaning up the spill since it occurred more than a month ago. The ship’s owner and its insurer have failed to respond effectively, and now the government of the Solomon Islands has requested assistance from Australia. Meanwhile, outrage continues to grow as local communities are deprived of their main source of food. 

How Does Ocean Conservancy Address the Threat of HFO Spills?

Just as it has in the Solomon Islands, a heavy fuel oil spill in the Arctic could have severe impacts on residents of local communities and the marine ecosystem. And in the cold and remote waters of the Arctic, a heavy fuel oil spill would likely be even more challenging to clean up.

That is why Ocean Conservancy—together with other organizations—has worked for many years to ban the use of HFO and the carriage of HFO for use in Arctic waters. Just last year, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) initiated a process to ban HFO from Arctic waters, and it is already banned in Antarctic waters. Now that we’ve been successful in initiating the development of a ban at the IMO, we are working to ensure the IMO develops it as quickly as possible to prevent a spill of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters.

The MV Solomon Trader provides a tragic reminder of the consequences of a heavy fuel oil spill and should lend additional urgency to banning heavy fuel oil use and carrying it for use as fuel in Arctic waters.

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