Some of Australia’s most popular white sand beaches were declared a disaster zone today after an 11,000 gallon fuel oil spill from the cargo ship Pacific Adventurer.
The oil blackened miles of pristine beaches and has led to the detainment of the ship by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
“This could … be the worst environmental disaster we have faced.” – Anna Bligh, Queensland Premier
Bligh declared 37 miles of white sand beaches a disaster zone, and authorized closing of the beaches to public access. Bulldozers have already begun scraping up the blackened sand from the affected beaches.
The national parks at Bribie islands and Moreton north of Brisbane were the hardest hit by the spill, and northeastern Queensland state government is threatening Swire Shipping, Ltd (UK) with a multimillion dollar lawsuit.
The owners may be fined up to $1.3 million USD and could be also liable for up to $160 million USD in additional penalties for the environmental damage.
The ship’s owners, Swire, stated that containers on deck slipped and ripped a hole in a fuel tank, spilling at least 11,000 gallons into the sea. 31 containers holding 694 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer fell from the deck, and have not been found. The ship was traveling from Newcastle to Indonesia when it hit the remains of Cyclone Hamish.
A recent inspection of the hull by divers is leading to an estimate of “significantly more” than 11,000 gallons spilled. Officials accused Swire of initially misleading the government about the extent of the spill, telling the government it was much smaller, which lead officials to predict little environmental damage.
The company said they regret “the extent of the environmental pollution caused by spills of heavy fuel oil from the ship and the company is offering assistance with the clean up.”
So far, wildlife victims have been limited to birds coated in oil, but local authorities claim that as long as the oil slick remains, the damage could get much worse. The ship has been brought to port and detained until satisfactory explanation of the event has been given.
“We have detained the ship. It’s not going anywhere until we release it.” – Graham Peache, Maritime Safety Authority
The Great Barrier Reef is to the north of the spill, and is not considered threatened by the oil slick.
Image:polandeze at Flickr under CC license