WWF team to assess impact of oil spill on wildlife

JAYNE RICKARD

A team of marine researchers, travelling with the WWF, are on their way to the site of the stricken West Atlas oil rig to assess the impact on the area's wildlife.

Thousands of litres of oil, gas and condensate have leaked into the Timor Sea since August 21 from the well head near the West Atlas rig.

Five researchers plus a photographer from WWF Australia set sail from Darwin this morning to the oil spill, about 250km off the Kimberley coast, to begin a two-day scientific assessment of the damage done to marine wildlife by the leaking oil.

In a statement released two days ago, oil and gas giant PTTEP Australasia said the stemming operation, which involves drilling 2.6km to intersect the existing well and inject heavy mud to stop the flow, was on track to be completed by early October.

More than 300 people are involved in the relief operation.

Led by Dr Gilly Llewellyn, the WWF team will assess what species are in the area, including whales, dolphins, sea snakes and turtles.

A WWF spokesman said the remoteness of the location made it difficult to predict the extent of damage to wildlife.

"Even if it's not half as bad as we expect it's still a massive oil spill and it's still very critical to get out there," he said.

"The belief is that since the rig has been leaking 400 barrels a day for over four weeks now, the effect of all that will be large."

The team do not have the capacity to treat or handle the animals.

"There's a huge amount of marine life out there. Hopefully by going out there and getting some understanding of what exactly is going on, we can change that," he said.