Oil has started leaking from a bulk carrier stranded on a coral reef near World Heritage-listed waters in the Solomon Islands, local villagers said Wednesday.
The MV Solomon Trader ran aground on February 5 while loading bauxite at Rennell Island but heavy seas whipped up by Tropical Cyclone Oma have thwarted salvage attempts.
Locals said the 225-metre (740-foot) vessel was now starting to leak oil.
"We're starting to see a slick," Derek Pongi told AFP. "It's not that big but it's hard to tell because the weather's still rough.
Rennell Island, about 240 kilometres south of the capital Honiara, is the largest raised coral atoll in the world and includes a UNESCO World Heritage site which extends kilometres (miles) out to sea.
Pongi said locals feared a major environmental disaster.
"The people here depend on the sea for all their needs," he said. "It would make life very hard for them."
While the ship was carrying bauxite, any such large vessel would also have large amounts of oil and fuel for its engines.
Island Sun News reported the Hong Kong-flagged ship's owners Bintan Mining had flown in salvage experts from Australia and the United States.
Officials from neighbouring Australia said they were working with the Solomon Islands government to "hold the responsible company, owners and insurers to account in responding to this maritime incident".
"Australia... has undertaken an overflight inspection of the vessel and supplied the findings to Solomon Islands' authorities," Australian foreign affairs said in a statement.
"(Australia) has also deployed an expert to assist with the Solomon Islands government's next steps."
The officials declined to answer questions on the severity of any oil spill and the prospects for salvage.
The Solomons' National Disaster Management Office, which has reportedly never coordinated a maritime salvage before, was unavailable for comment.
Wellington, New Zealand | AFP