Toxic disaster \’worst in decades\’

The master and owners of a cargo ship that caused Queensland\’s biggest oil spill in more than 30 years face the prospect of charges and massive fines.


Authorities have launched an investigation into the spill from the Pacific Adventurer as environmental officers scramble to clean up the mess.

They say it could take up to a week to mop up oil that is washing up on an island off southeast Queensland, and on a mainland beach, leaving some birds coated in a black film.

Oil, fertiliser leak

Up to 30 tonnes of oil spilt into the sea off Moreton Island on Wednesday morning, after 31 shipping containers carrying 620 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fell overboard.

The lost containers damaged the Pacific Adventurer\’s fuel stores in the hull, causing the oil to leak.

The oil spill, which measures about 15km in length and is two metres wide along the eastern side of Moreton Island, is the worst in Queensland in more than 30 years.

Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) general manager Captain John Watkinson said authorities had launched an investigation.

He said the Pacific Adventurer spill involved 25-30 tonnes of oil.

\’Worst spill in decades\’

That\’s more than the 25 tonnes spilt in Gladstone harbour in 2006, which authorities at the time said was the worst in the state for three decades.

“This is a pretty big spill,” Capt Watkinson told reporters in Brisbane.

“Australia, through international conventions, can take certain actions against the master and the company.

“We can also fine the ship for doing certain things … we have oil in the water, we have pollution, it\’s not meant to happen, it shouldn\’t happen.

\’Hefty fines\’ flagged

“We\’d be taking action (after the investigation) if it needed to be taken – that\’s a pretty hefty fine in Queensland.”

The ship\’s company, Swire, could be fined up to $1.5 million while individuals could be hit with fines of up to $500,000.

Premier Anna Bligh said the spill posed a serious environmental threat.

“We will be fully investigating this incident,” she said.

“If there has been any breach of environmental requirements we will not hesitate to prosecute those concerned.

“Whether a prosecution can be secured or not, we will be pursuing compensation for the cost of this clean up.”

The operation is costing about $100,000 a day, but Transport Minister John Mickel said insurance, not taxpayers, would cover the cost.

Frantic clean-up operation

Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Mike Short said there were about 50 officers working to clean oil from the shore of Moreton Island, raking contaminated material into bags.

A 20-strong national response crew is also on standby if needed.

Maritime Safety Queensland said patches of oil had also been detected on Marcoola Beach north of Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast. A lifesaver said oil was also present at Yaroomba beach, also on the Sunshine Coast.

Five oil-covered pelicans flew in to the daily feeding session at Tangalooma Resort on Moreton Island on Thursday morning.

Health of birds a concern

Susan Hassard from the resort\’s Dolphin Education Centre said staff managed to catch one of the birds, but the other four flew off.

It\’s also feared animals on the northern end of Moreton Island will be affected. The area is a roosting site for sea birds during rough weather.

There is still no sign of the 31 lost containers filled with ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser that can also be used to make explosives.

But a plane equipped with special radar to detect containers has been launched to aid the search.

Capt Watkinson said that although the fertiliser was in sealed bags inside the containers it was unlikely they would maintain a watertight seal.

“While they\’re weatherproof, they\’re not waterproof,” he said.

Algal blooms possible from toxins

The Environmental Protection Agency has said that if it spills, the ammonium nitrate should dilute enough so as not to cause any major problems other than algal blooms.

But marine expert Mike Kingsford, from James Cook University, said the threats posed by the substance included algal blooms, burns and deaths to fish and seagrass, and physical damage to the ocean floor from the containers.

The Pacific Adventurer berthed at Fisherman Islands, in the Port of Brisbane, on Thursday.