Indonesian port city of Balikpapan, on the island of Borneo, declared a state of emergency after pipeline fracture caused devastating oil spill along the coast, killing five fishermen and bringing health problems to hundreds of locals after it ignited.
The oil spill, which occurred over the weekend (March 31 - April 1), has now covered an area of around 18 km2 (7 mi2), contaminating the sea and polluting the air with thick black smoke. One protected dugong has already washed up dead on the shore.
The five fisherman died after being caught up in the fire caused by the spill. The fire was sparked by workers who were trying to clear the spill by burning it off the water's surface, a local search and rescue agency spokesman said.
"They were a group of men who were on vacation together and went fishing," said Octavianto, a senior official of the East Borneo search and rescue agency.
Port city of Balikpapan (population 700 000) is struggling to deal with the toxic smoke.
"We’re in a state of emergency because of the oil spill’s impact," said the Balikpapan city secretary MN Fadli. Around 1200 people who live in the Penajam North Penajam Paser subdistrict reported symptoms of nausea, vomiting and breathing problems after the spill caught fire on March 31, and the city has distributed masks to help residents cope with the smell, according to The Guardian.
"I may sound like I’m exaggerating, but the state of the bay is like that of a gas station," said Fadli.
"The fire was quite big, about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) high. It can be seen from Balikpapan city and the smell was all over the place," a senior official with East Borneo’s search and rescue agency told AFP.
Pertamina, a state-owned company in charge of the pipeline, said earlier that there had been no disruptions to the pipeline operations.
Indonesian media quoted Pertamina denying wrongdoing, saying that tests of the waters from the bay have determined that the substance is marine fuel oil, not the crude which is carried in their pipelines in the area.
On April 4, the company admitted responsibility for the oil spill, adding that its underwater pipes broke and leaked.
"Since it was first detected, we have closed the crude oil supply from Lawe-lawe to Balikpapan as a precaution," Pertamina spokesman Togar MP said, according to Daily Mail.
Initial inspections show the pipe has shifted about 120 m (400 feet) from its initial location on the seabed.
The full environmental impact of the incident is not yet known but it is already affecting the lives of local fisherman who rely on going out in their boats every day. The Indonesian Environment and Forestry Ministry said a recovery team was working to contain and clean up the spill.
Rasio Ridho Sani, the director general of the ministry, said: "Our team in the field is investigating it thoroughly. We will soon find out how big the impact is on the environment and who will be held responsible."
Disaster mitigation officials were able to control the blaze in the port city of Balikpapan but were still working to contain the spill.
"We have asked the team as well as Pertamina to prioritize the cleaning of oil spills in residential areas due to the stench and other potential risks," said Environment Minister Nurbaya Bakar.
Balikpapan, in East Kalimantan, is a major mining and energy hub and home to one of the few oil refineries in the country.
Featured image: Indonesia oil spill, April 2018.