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East Timor signals compensation claim over leaking oil rig

Radio Australia - November 6, 2009

East Timor says it will seek compensation from Australia if its waters or shores are polluted by a leaking oil rig.

The West Atlas Rig spewed gas and oil into the Timor Sea for 10 weeks, producing a massive ocean slick before it was finally plugged. East Timor's president says there are concerns the slick may enter domestic waters... and says if that happens he'll also call on the rig's Thai owners to pay for damages.

Presenter: Stephanie March

Speakers: Jose Ramos Horta, East Timorese president; James Watson, biologist, Queensland University; Professor Donald Rothwell, Australian National University

March: The West Atlas oil platform is just 250 kilometres from East Timor's coastline. For two months, the rig spewed 400 barrels of oil a day into the Timor Sea. The leak was finally stopped this week, but a fire on the rig has made further repairs difficult. The oil slick is now less than 100 nautical miles off the East Timorese coastline. President Jose Ramos Horta says he's deeply concerned.

Horta: (Translation) About the problem in the Timor Sea, I think that it has been going on now for more than two months in the Australian zone of the Timor Sea for which the Australian Government has full responsibility for the problem together with the Thai oil company.

March: The president says he wants to know if the slick has entered East Timor's maritime area as quickly as possible, and says if it has, he'll be looking for foreign compensation.

Horta: (translation) I think the government of East Timor should speak to the environment groups in East Timor and in Australia to find out those who have responsibility and if there is any compensation to pay to East Timor if there is a negative impact upon the environment.

March: Reports from neighbouring Indonesia suggest huge numbers of fish have died because of the spill. Queensland University biologist, James Watson, was sent by the Australian Government to investigate the initial effects of the spill in Australian waters. He says he wouldn't be surprised if the oil has reached East Timor.

Watson: This oil spill happened over when some fish were spawning so you would probably expect that some fish populations will decline in the short term at least. There will also therefore be carry on effects into other parts of the eco system so there will be a shortening in numbers of things like birds, sea snakes, turtles as well because there's less food in the environment.

March: Australian National University law Professor Donald Rothwell says Australia could legally be held responsible if the slick does pollute East Timor's waters.

Rothwell: These were actions that occurred within the Australian Continental Shelf, these were activities over which the Australian Government had oversight, ultimately the Australian Government would bear responsibility in international law for any environmental damage that occurs to East Timor as a result of these incidents.

March: The Australian Government says it will hold discussions with East Timor over any concerns it has about the spill. A spokeswoman from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says the government will act consistently with international law in relation to the incident. A federal inquiry into the leak is due to be finished in April next year.