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Experts say oil spill is no catastrophe -

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ELEANOR HALL: Oil spill specialists say it's overkill to describe the spill in the Timor Sea as an
environmental catastrophe.

Oil has been spewing from a rig off Western Australia's north west coast since Friday morning.

But specialists say the oil is so light that it will evaporate without doing much long-term damage
to marine life.

And they're now warning that the chemical being used to disperse the spill could be more damaging
than the oil itself.

Ashley Hall has our report.

ASHLEY HALL: The Australian Maritime Safety Authority says it's impossible to measure how much
crude oil and gas has leaked from the West Atlas oil rig since Friday morning.

Although the oil slick is now estimated to be 14 kilometres long and 30 metres wide.

Tracey Jiggins is a spokeswoman for the Authority.

TRACEY JIGGINS: It is a major operation and because of the protracted nature of it, it is certainly
going to go on for some time. So I would certainly say it is one of the most serious spills that we
have had in recent years.

ASHLEY HALL: It's also not clear how long it will take to plug the leak. Although the company
suggests that operation could take up two months.

Green groups say that's too long. And the Federal Opposition accuses the Government of not doing
enough to help. It's a charge the Environment Minister Peter Garrett rejects.

PETER GARRETT: Authorities have acted quickly, recognising that this is a matter which has to be
dealt with, with great urgency.

ASHLEY HALL: Emergency crews sprayed the slick with a chemical dispersant yesterday. The Maritime
Safety Authority's Tracey Jiggins says it's designed to break up the oil and prevent environmental
damage.

TRACEY JIGGINS: We are working very closely with the Environment Department; however what our role
is, is to get the oil out of the environment as quickly as possible and the dispersant is
successfully doing that.

ASHLEY HALL: But two specialists in the effects of oil spills on marine life say that the chemical
dispersant might be doing more harm than good.

Bob Kagi is an emeritus professor at Curtin University of Technology in Perth.

BOB KAGI: I don't know why. I think the reason they're using dispersants is to be seen to be doing
something. Dispersants are often more toxic than the oil itself.

ASHLEY HALL: Professor Kagi says the oil being released from the rig is so light, it will evaporate
on its own, if given time. And while he says the leak is serious, it might not be for the reasons
you think.

BOB KAGI: Oh, it is very serious because the people have suffered a major setback in their
operations and there is a very severe fire risk.

ASHLEY HALL: So serious in terms of the operation. Not serious in terms of the environment?

BOB KAGI: What people don't realise is that there is natural oil seeps in Indonesia which release
enormous amounts of oil which drifts down the Western Australian coast and has since time
immemorial.

There are tarballs washing up on the West Australian coast almost all the time and these are the
remnants of these oil seeps in Indonesia.

ASHLEY HALL: Green groups have seized on this latest incident to ramp up their opposition to the
$50 billion Gorgon gas project on the north west shelf.

But Bob Kagi says the presence of energy extraction operations aren't necessarily bad for marine
life.

BOB KAGI: We did a study on the North Lincoln A platform. The area where we were studying is
basically a desert, it's a marine desert. Around the platform however was an oasis of wildlife.

There were fish and all sorts of organisms that had developed from the nutrients that is to say the
oil and various other materials that had been put over the side of the NR8 (phonetic).

ASHLEY HALL: Associate Professor Monique Gagnon from Curtin University's Department of
Environmental Biology says fish don't take long to recover from an oil spill.

MONIQUE GAGNON: The (inaudible) would be metabolised fairly rapidly by the fish, directed to the
bowel and rapidly eliminated out of the body. The effect that we could see, the accumulation of
those compounds that could be seen in the fish will last about a week.

ASHLEY HALL: Monique Gagnon says much of the commentary about this spill has been an over-reaction.

MONIQUE GAGNON: No, I do not believe it is catastrophic at all because it is an open sea and it
involves some fairly light compound, petroleum compound that will mostly evaporate.

ELEANOR HALL: That Associate Professor Monique Gagnon from Curtin University's Department of
Environmental Biology. She was speaking to Ashley Hall.