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Loading site of Bauxite at Hagaluai, off the coast of Rennell Island. Photo supplied.
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Open international sea access in Renbel province concerns public

BY PETER ZOLEVEKE II

THE open sea traffic in Rennell and Bellona province is worrying citizens, who are calling for national government to act.

While Solomon Islands is in a state of emergency as a pre-emptive measure against any possible entry by covid-19, the Bauxite mining operation in Rennell is in full swing.

Last week, a bulk carrier, MV Expert, arrived in Rennell to ship out bauxite. It had just been reportedly cleared by Customs and Health in Noro.

It reportedly arrived on March 29 in Noro, three days later it was on its way to Rennell. Why it did not undergo the compulsory 14-day quarantine is anybody’s guess.

However, a senior official in the Customs and Excise Office speaking to Island Sun in anonymity earlier this week, said otherwise, refuting reports that the ship had been given special treatment and was allowed to bypass quarantine.

“The mining vessel have been checked thoroughly, by health, customs and immigration officials in Noro. The ship spent three weeks (a week extra of the 14days quarantine) and met the standard required for quarantine purposes before it was approved to travel to the province. There are NO signs of COVID-19 symptoms on the crew members, upon its traveling date on March 29th.

“We maintained our strict monitoring strategy of vessels movements making sure they met formalities before granting passage.”

The Comptroller of Customs, Mr Jim Sutton, declined to comment however referring the paper’s enquiry to the permanent secretary of the Finance Ministry.

The PS of Finance did not respond to enquiries, there was no answer to calls made to his office.

Minister for Health Dickson Mua, in an interview on Tuesday this week, stressed that his officials in Noro have stepped up their routine checks on vessels.

“At the moment I’m yet to get an update regarding from my Permanent Secretary. However, from what I know officials there are doing their job effectively. Some of the ships spent more than the required 14 days quarantine,” Minister Mua said.

He adds that ships coming are complying with the Maritime regulations meeting its standard.

Member of Parliament for Rennell and Bellona, Tautai Agikimu’a Kaituu told Parliament on Tuesday this week that his people “want to cut the rope of the ship”.

People in Rennell are preventing crews of a foreign steamer to enter their land for fear of contacting coronavirus (COVID-19) because they have not undergone 14-day quarantine, he alluded.

Mr Kaituu later posted on Facebook that the ship arrived at Noro Port, Western province on March 29 and three days later travelled to Rennell.

Further to that, Kaituu commented that the crews would not only endanger only Renbellonese but the three quarter of the 500-plus mining employees who are from other parts of the country.

Meanwhile, Solomon Islands’ corruption watchdog, Transparency Solomon Islands on Wednesday this week voiced its concern on the MV Expert incident, questioning why government granted the ship special treatment in being allowed to skip 14-day quarantine.

Members of public taking to social media also voice their concerns, many saying that such complacency by government compromises the country’s preparedness against covid-19.

Earlier this week, a chief of Lau/Mbaelelea, who has relatives working in the mining operations in Rennell, voiced his concerns to the paper, saying, “Is the national government allowing this at such crucial time of the COVID-19 pandemic or the provincial government?

“I call on responsible authorities to investigate the ship and its crew members. It’s not safe, putting the country at risk especially the people of the province with a small population,” Chief Galorick Iroto stressed.

It is understood that this is the second bulk carrier to arrive in Rennell since the covid-19 pandemic began early this year.

The first had brought in Solomon Islands’ first four covid-19 suspects, who were later cleared when their samples were tested negative in Melbourne, Australia.

It is understood the Bauxite mining in Rennell pays zero tax to the government.

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