Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Atlas Oil spill: Just who is the West Australian kidding?

"And the company takes what the company wants
And nothing's as precious as a hole in the ground"
Blue Sky Mine, Midnight Oil (Lead singer Peter Garrett now Federal Environment Minister)
Two hundred and fifty kilometres off the WA Kimberley coast an environmental catastrophe is unfolding. Every day for eight weeks an estimated 400 barrels of oil have been leaking from the Atlas Oil rig into the Timor Sea. The leak began on 21 August and as of 13 October remains unplugged, despite numerous promises and commitments made by PTTEP the corporation responsible. The company is still unable (or refuses) to say what caused the spill, how much oil has leaked and when it will be plugged.For 8 weeks there have been assurances from the company and the Federal government that the leak is not serious and will soon be under control. Instead there has just been delay after delay and largely silence by the company and the Australian government on what happended.

Yet the West Australian newspaper (like the Australian government) can't seem to decide whether the leak is serious or not. It plays down the seriousness of the leak by claiming the experts are divided. In a piece in today's West (the first for nearly a week and as far back as Page 23) with the headline Experts divided on the spill's impact on marine life the West refuses to take a position on the spill. Compare the West Australian's efforts at supposedly objective reporting on this issue with its willingness to advocate and prosecute any number of other issues that serve its business interests or those of large WA corporate and business interests. Just why is the West Australian newspaper so keen to minimize and play down the seriousness and impact of the spill?

Well here's one perspective on that issue from Robert McChesney cited in David Edwards and David Cromwell' 2006 book Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media:
"balanced professional journalism continuously "smuggles" in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers, as well as the political aims of the owning class"
The Atlas oil leak is one of Australia's worst oil spills. The oil and gas is leaking in what is recognised as a pristine marine environment, acknowledged as a "marine superhighway" for whales, dolphins, flatback turtles, fish and bird life. WWF Australia reports that the area is home to 15 species of whale and dolphins, more than 30 seabirds and five types of turtles and 30,000 individual sea snakes and 16,000 turtles.

Environmental groups and conservationists estimate that the oil slick has now spread at least 15,000 sq kms and covers an area more than 100 times the size of Sydney Harbour. The slick is reported to have reached Indonesian waters.

Environmental groups and fisherman who have visited the site describe significant harm to the environment and marine life, and identify concerns about the impact of toxicity including:
  • use of detergent (dispersants) which harm wildlife
  • flat back turtles and sea snakes contaminated with a combination of oil and detergent used to disperse the oil
  • sea snakes swimming amidst oil
  • dolphins and fish swimming in the slick affected water
  • sea birds covered in oil slick
  • death of sea birds
  • possible impact on coral spawning at Ashmore and Cartier Reef
Fisherman are particularly concerned about the likely impact on commercially important species such as snapper and red emperor, which are spawning at this time of the year.

The ABC carries unconfirmed reports of Indonesian fisherman finding thousands of dead fish and dead dolphins.

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