Marine life is under serious threat from an oil spill off Australian coast, it is feared. But the government is rewarding the company responsible with contract for exploration over another huge area, say critics.
The West Atlas oil rig, operated by PTTEP Australasia, has been leaking oil into the Timor sea for nine weeks now.
AdvertisementA survey by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says dolphins, migratory sea birds, sea snakes and marine turtles were found in abundance in the affected area, with many of these species swimming through toxic oil.
"We recorded hundreds of dolphins and sea birds in the oil slick area, as well as sea snakes and threatened hawksbill and flatback turtles," said WWF-Australia's Conservation Director Gilly Llewellyn.
Dr Llewellyn said the findings contradicted comments by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, claiming the WWF survey found no evidence of harm to marine life.
"This is clearly a false representation of our results and appears to be an attempt to sweep this environmental disaster under the carpet," she said.
The expedition recorded 17 species of seabird, four species of cetacean and five marine reptiles including two species of marine turtle. At least eleven of the species were listed migratory and two - hawksbill and flatback turtles - are listed as threatened with extinction under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
Dr Llewellyn said the spill could have a long-term effect on the ecosystem.
"We know that oil can be a slow and silent killer. Impacts from the Exxon Valdez disaster are still being seen 20 years later, so we can expect this environmental disaster will continue to unfold for years to come."
"The public needs to have all available information concerning what has been observed and reported, including findings from Ashmore Reef, and from the vessels and platforms in the area."
The Greens have been highly critical of the government's handling of the oil spill.
Besides, the federal government has chosen to award the PTTEP a massive new area for oil exploration in Australian waters.
"It's ecologically irresponsible," slammed Greens leader Bob Brown in an interview to the Nine Network on Sunday.
"They're rewarding this failure... with further exploration leases."
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has been handling the matter, has a lot of questions to answer about the oil spill, he says.
"He has the responsibility for not only failing to get it under control and preventing it at the outset, but rewarding the very people who have caused it," Senator Brown said.
The Greens believe anywhere from 10 to 20 million litres of oil has spilled into the ocean since the leak began on August 21.
The last three attempts to stop the flow of sweet light crude oil, gas and condensate from the Montara wellhead, 250km northwest of the Truscott air base in Western Australia's Kimberley region, have all failed.
Equipment failure has caused further delays in the attempt to plug the leak.
A fourth attempt was due to start on Sunday, but PTTEP Australasia released a statement saying work would be pushed back to Tuesday.
PTTEP, a Thai-based company which operates the oilfield, has failed three times to plug the leaking well with mud.
A statement from the company said the latest effort to stop the leak had been delayed because "whipstock" equipment, used to direct the drill had failed.
However, Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett said he was confident everything possible is being done to stop the oil leak.
"The fact of the matter is, it's a fiendishly difficult exercise - a little bit like threading the needle - to try to get this oil spill stopped," he told ABC Radio.
"I very much hope that it will be on this occasion. I'm concerned about it, but we've put a lot of measures in place not only to monitor it, but to make sure that any wildlife that's affected is properly treated."
Earlier this week, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the cost of the clean-up had reached more than $5 million.