Image: Oil spill from offshore well
Australian Maritime Safety Authority
This offshore oil well started leaking on Aug. 21 and is estimated to be releasing 400 barrels a day.
updated 10/31/2009 2:56:13 PM ET 2009-10-31T18:56:13

Thousands of dead fish and clumps of oil have been found drifting near Indonesia's coastline more than two months after an underwater well began leaking in the Timor Sea, officials and fishermen said.

An estimated 400 barrels a day of oil has been leaking from a fissure that erupted on Aug. 21 at a rig about 150 miles off the Australian coast. PTTEP Australasia, a branch of Thai-owned PTT Exploration and Production Co. Ltd., has failed repeatedly to stop the leak but says it is still trying.

The head of the World Wildlife Fund Australia, Gilly Llewellyn, said Friday that the early impact of the spill is beginning to become clear.

"This is shaping up to be one of the largest (spills) in Australian history," Llewellyn said. "It is one of the most diverse marine habitats in the world. The impact could be over weeks, months, years."

It is still unclear how far the spill has actually spread because much of it may be undersea, Llewellyn said.

Skin problems, diarrhea cited
But a slick has drifted hundreds of miles toward the impoverished Indonesian province of East Nusatenggara, where fishermen say they have seen thousands of dead fish drifting.

Residents in the seaside villages of Nunkolo and Bandi, located on small islands off the coast of West Timor, were suffering skin problems and acute diarrhea after eating contaminated fish, local environmental groups said.

"Fishermen have been facing serious difficulties for the past month," said Ferdi Tanoni, chairman of the West Timor Care Foundation. "Villagers' income dropped by 80 percent because many fish died or smelled oily."

If estimates of the amount of oil leakage per day are accurate, the current size of the spill would have reached nearly 1.2 million gallons.

There are fears it could harm whales, turtles and dolphins — some of them rare — living in the deep waters.

"We recorded hundreds of dolphins and sea birds in the oil slick area, as well as sea snakes and threatened hawksbill and flatback turtles," Llewellyn said after touring the area.

Several dead sea snakes and birds have been found in oil and are believed to have been killed by the slick, although tests have not yet determined the cause of death, Llewellyn said.

'Critical issue is the long term impact'
Samples taken by West Timor's Regional Environmental Agency in waters roughly 20 miles off the coast found high concentrations of oil and, in one out of every four tests, dead fish.

"Clearly, wildlife is dying and hundreds if not thousands of dolphins, seabirds and sea-snakes are being exposed to toxic oil. The critical issue is the long term impact of this slick on a rich marine ecosystem, taking into consideration the magnitude, extent and duration of the event," Llewellyn said.

WWF also noted that October is the prime spawning period for corals and red emperor in the area.

WWF accused the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association of misrepresenting its resent survey as having 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," Llewellyn said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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