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License to spill

By Gilly Llewellyn - posted Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Bond author Ian Fleming would have struggled to plot a thriller more mysterious than the Montara H1 blow-out that continues to pour at least 400 barrels of oil into the Timor Sea every day off the Northwest coast of Western Australia.

Here we are 74 days on from an accident that has been described as one of Australia's worst oil spills and the lack of information from the company responsible, and our own government is breathtaking.

What caused the catastrophic failure?


Why did it take four weeks to even begin trying to stop the flow?

Why didn't the government send a boat to examine the affect of the oil on wildlife until after WWF had already done so?

What would happen if one of the many other wells that pincushion the Northwest were to suffer a similar blow-out?

And most recently the questions have come full circle and returned to exactly how much oil is really spilling from the wellhead after the company's guesswork was questioned in a senate hearing.

What we do know is that in the three days that WWF was in the area it encountered hundreds of animals in contact with the spill. Some of these included 202 spinner dolphins, 72 sea snakes, 176 sooty terns and two species of turtles listed as threatened with extinction under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. We also know that bird deaths have been reported.

At points in the voyage the vessel was surrounded by oil on every side right to the horizon. Fifty nautical miles from the source of the leak, an hour or so from the Jabiru shoals, the thick smell of the fumes forced the vessel to retreat.


These eyewitness accounts challenge those in government who are saying that the spill will have minimal affect on the marine environment. How baseless and utterly misleading these statements are. It's like standing outside a burning building and saying that the furniture will be okay. Satellite images show the spill is still spreading, like a huge environmental scar.

The Kimberley coast, its islands and this remarkable area of the Timor Sea are unlike anywhere else in Australia or the world. This marine wonderland houses the world's largest humpback nursery, reefs that are a match for, and in many places surpass, the most pristine areas of the Great Barrier Reef, and a blue water superhighway that acts as a migration channel for whales, whale sharks and turtles.

All this has been preserved because the area is so remote that we have yet to make our mark on this magnificent region.

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First published by ABCs Unleashed on October 27, 2009.

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About the Author

Ghislaine Llewellyn is WWF-Australia's Conservation Manager.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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