, March 13, 2009 (ENS) - The government of Queensland has declared Moreton Island and the southern area of the Sunshine Coast a disaster area after a cargo ship damaged by the loss of more than half its containers spilled 30 tonnes of heavy oil into the sea.
On Wednesday, the 185 meter container ship, Pacific Adventurer, was enroute from Newcastle to Indonesia via Brisbane when it ran into heavy seas whipped up by the tail end of Cyclone Hamish, a category 5 storm.
Oil has washed up along a 20 kilometer stretch of Moreton Island's coastline. (Photo courtesy Government of Queensland)
The ship was seven nautical miles east of Cape Moreton when it reported losing 31 of a total 50 shipping containers of ammonium nitrate being carried on its deck. Several of the fallen containers pierced the ship's hull, resulting in the oil spill.
"This is a very serious situation," said Queensland Premier Anna Bligh today, after a meeting of the emergency response group - members of key government agencies.
"I'm advised that it appears the volume of oil involved is much greater than originally reported by the Pacific Adventurer," she said. "And the effect of the oil spill is more widespread."
An aerial survey this morning shows that oil has washed up along a 20 kilometer (12 mile) stretch on the eastern side of Moreton Island, extending 20 kilometers south from Cape Moreton, and along the foreshore on Moreton Island's northern side. The resort island is a 75 minute ferry ride from Queensland's capital city of Brisbane on Australia's east coast.
Bligh said the state would seek compensation for the cost of the cleanup, which she estimated would take at least a week.
The Hong Kong-based Pacific Adventurer has been detained at Hamilton Wharf by the federal authority, the Australian Maritime Safety Association. Its remaining cargo of 19 containers have been offloaded and moved to a safe storage site. The company can face fines of up A$1.5 million and the ship's master fines of up to $500,000.
The Pacific Adventurer before the oil spill incident (Photo by Peter Karberg MarineTraffic.com)
"A comprehensive risk assessment has been carried out both in relation to the hazardous cargo on board ship and its entry into Moreton Bay," said Maritime Safety Queensland General Manager Director Captain John Watkinson.
"I must stress there are no reports of crew members being injured or being exposed to any risk and there is no general risk to the wider coastal community," he said.
About 30 campers have been evacuated from a site at North Point by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, who have enlisted Queensland Police assistance to restrict all private vehicle movement on the island to limit the spread of contaminants. All camping grounds on Moreton Island, the Ocean Beach camping area and Ocean Beach on Bribie Island have been closed until further notice.
Maritime Safety Queensland has sought scientific advice from the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service regarding the potential hazards of ammonium nitrate and been advised that it is stable in its current state. The chemical is commonly used in agriculture as a high-nitrogen fertilizer and as a component of explosives.
One of the world's largest sand islands, Moreton is almost completely a national park. A favorite resort destination, the island is famous for its miles of sandy beaches, crystalline creeks and lagoons, and abundant wildlife, which makes the spill all the more devastating, environmentalists say.
Don Henry, executive director of Australian Conservation Foundation and a former president of the Moreton Bay Preservation Society, said, "I am devastated to see the massive damage the oil slick is doing to this beautiful coastline."
"Reports that the northern tip of Moreton Island has been turned into an oily wasteland are very disturbing. This area is home to bottlenose dolphins, dugongs and a treasure trove of other marine species," said Henry. "Turtles lay their eggs in the sand of these beaches. Beachstone curlews and sooty oyster catchers nest just above the high tide mark."
"At this stage Maritime Safety Queensland has not been notified of any extensive oil contamination of wildlife. However, the potential hazard remains significant," said Queensland Transport Minister John Mickel.
Watkinson, said an oiled wildlife response plan hasd been developed to deal with the consequences of the spill.
Queensland government officials are briefed on the Pacific Adventurer oil spill. March 13, 2009 (Photo courtesy Premier Anna Bligh)
Tangalooma Island Resort, which offers guests the experience of hand feeding a pod of wild bottlenose dolphins that visit each evening, reports that it has not been affected by the oil spill. The spill has remained outside of Moreton Bay and has only affected the north and eastern side of the island.
"Maritime Safety Queensland is continuing to conduct aerial surveillance and tracking the movement of the oil slick released from the Pacific Adventurer," Captain Watkinson said.
"I would like to see four major reforms come out of this environmental disaster," said Henry.
"First, the federal government should insist on heavy penalties for companies that play fast and loose with safety requirements and environmental conditions.
"Second, the federal government should ensure Australia has a national coordinated cleanup capability, to quickly respond to environmental crises at the scale needed.
"Third, for goodness sake, the government must get serious about tackling climate change. This ship was hit by the tail end of a category 5 cyclone. Just as Victoria will experience dramatically increased days of extreme bushfire weather, the science is telling us Queensland will cop more destructive cyclones unless we make big cuts to greenhouse pollution."
"And fourth, all political parties in the Queensland election should commit to establish adequate green zones to make sure Queensland's beautiful beaches and Moreton Bay are as healthy as possible to survive accidents like this."
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Australian Transportation Safety Bureau and Maritime Safety Queensland are conducting an inquiry into the incident.
Meanwhile coastal authorities have been advised on precautions to take if they identify any containers washing up on their shores in coming weeks. Members of the public are also being encouraged to report sightings to Queensland Police or Maritime Safety Queensland.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.
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