Wellington (AFP) - The owner of a grounded cargo ship that is leaking oil into World Heritage-listed waters in the Solomon Islands has apologised for the environmental disaster but denied the crew were drunk when the accident happened.
MV Solomon Trader ran aground on February 5 while loading bauxite at remote Rennell Island, some 240 kilometres (150 miles) south of the Pacific nation's capital Honiara.
More than a month later, the 225-metre (740-foot) ship is still stuck on the reef and has leaked more than 70 tonnes of oil into the sea, with another 600 tonnes still on the stricken vessel.
The ship's insurer, Korean Protection and Indemnity Club (KP&I), issued an apology late Wednesday on behalf of itself and the vessel's Hong Kong-based owner King Trader Ltd.
"(We) have offered a sincere apology to the people of the Solomon Islands...although matters of liability are yet to be determined...(we) have expressed deep remorse," it said in a statement.
The insurer described the situation as "totally unacceptable" and said the ship stranded after an unexpected gale blew it onto the reef.
"Reports of the Solomon Trader crew being absent from the vessel or intoxicated at the time of the grounding are false," it added.
Rennell Island is the largest raised coral atoll in the world and includes a UNESCO World Heritage site which extends kilometres out to sea.
The islanders rely on waters in the ecologically delicate region for their livelihoods.
Addressing delays in responding to the disaster, KP&I said a tug initially tried to manoeuvre the ship off the reef but poor weather intervened and pushed it further onshore.
It said ongoing bad weather, the remote location, a lack of power and the fact the ship had been "ransacked" after it grounded, with equipment removed that could have helped the salvage process, had all slowed the response.
It said experts and specialised equipment were now on site from as far field as Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, the United States, Singapore and Europe.
Clean-up work on the shore had started, along with efforts to remove the remaining oil from the ship, while divers were on standby to inspect the hull and seal any leaks.
"(We have) a common goal of making the situation better in the shortest possible time frame, however ...such maritime casualty responses can be time consuming, complex and unpredictable, particularly in remote and hazardous locations," it said.
The Australian government has sent salvage experts to assist the response and vowed to help the Solomons make sure those responsible for the spill are held to account.