Page last updated at 03:28 GMT, Sunday, 13 September 2009 04:28 UK

Oil threat to Australia wildlife

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

A handout photo from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority showing the oil leak
Environmentalists fear oil is heading towards an area where whales breed

Environmentalists have warned that an oil slick caused by an accident on a rig in the Timor Sea is threatening wildlife in Australian waters.

Oil has been flowing from the West Atlas platform for three weeks.

Safety authorities have been using chemicals to try to break up the spill but warn it could be at least two more weeks before the leak is plugged.

Up to 400 barrels of oil per day have been pouring into the Timor Sea to Australia's north.

An emergency rig has arrived from Singapore to repair the damage and aircraft and boats have been dousing the slick with dispersants.

Fragile environment

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has said that this has helped to contain the spread of oil, the bulk of which remains around the drilling platform thanks, in part, to benign weather conditions.

Officials have stated that the slick is about 170km (100 miles) from the Australian coast.

Environmental groups believe the contamination poses a significant threat to wildlife and is heading towards land.

Piers Verstegen, from the Conservation Council of Western Australia, says the spill - off the north coast of the Kimberley region where whales congregate - is an ecological disaster.

"Humpback whales, an endangered species, go to that area and that region to calf and give birth and this oil spill is happening just off the Kimberley coast," Mr Verstegen said.

"The oil, as far as we are aware, is travelling towards the Kimberley coastline but it is definitely affecting areas that are used by these whales and dolphins."

Fishermen have reported seeing endangered flatback turtles covered in oil.

There have also been claims that fish and sea-snakes have been poisoned.

Conservationists believe that, in its rush to exploit abundant natural resources, Australia risks inflicting irreparable damage on its fragile environment.

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