1 Nov 2009

Australian oil spill risks marine life - report

6:28 am on 1 November 2009

The Australian government has released a report into an oil leak off the country's north-west coast which reveals that birds and marine species are at risk.

The ABC reports that oil and gas have been leaking into the Timor Sea from a well beneath the West Atlas oil rig, which is operated by a Thai-based company, for more than 10 weeks.

The government-commissioned report, written by a team of marine biologists, describes the results from a survey of marine life in the area.

Its author, the University of Queensland's James Watson, says he found only a few dead animals in the area around the oil spill.

But he says it might be some time before the full impact of the spill is clear.

"We just don't know the long-term impacts of these species feeding on fish that actually live in the oil," he said.

The report calls for monitoring of the area for a five-year period.

Meanwhile, Australia's opposition environment spokesperson, Greg Hunt, says the government's seven-week cover-up of a gas leak from another well in the Timor Sea is unacceptable.

The Australian government has defended the delay in going public about the leak from the East Puffin well, saying it is small and non-threatening.

Mr Hunt says the environment minister, Peter Garrett, has acted irresponsibly.

Important lessons

Traditional owners in the Northern Territory say they have learned some important lessons from the offshore oil and gas spills in north-west Australian waters.

Dean Yibarbuk is a senior traditional owner in Arnhem Land, around 400 kilometres east of Darwin, where two vast new indigenous protected areas were recently declared.

He says the protracted offshore oil and gas spill saga in west Australian waters has deeply shocked his family. They want to keep the industry out of their new conservation areas to protect fish, dugongs and shellfish.

"(We want) to be able to have a better management on the sea areas," he said.

"We need to sit down and think and talk with our own government as well."

There are hopes of extending their conservation corridor 20km north from the coastline into the Timor Sea within months.