Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Oil spill causes environmental disaster on Queensland beaches

On Tuesday March 10 the container ship, The Pacific Adventurer, lost overboard thirty-one containers holding the volatile explosive ammonium nitrate, spilling three tonnes of the chemical on deck, with the hull and two fuel tanks being punctured in the heavy seas. The ship had run straight into 9 metre swells churned up by Category 5 Cyclone Hamish off the coast of Queensland. The subsequent oil spill has contaminated pristine beaches in a large area of south east Queensland, with Moreton and Bribie Island and southern parts of the Sunshine Coast being declared disaster zones by the Premier, Anna Bligh.


Originally only 20 tonnes of oil was reported lost by the ship, but estimates now range up to 42 tonnes (42,500 litres) of fuel oil. The ship has docked in Brisbane still leaking oil. A massive cleanup of the beaches and rescue of marine wildlife has begun. Inspection by divers on Friday revealed that a second fuel tank had been damaged when the containers were swept overboard.

The Hong Kong registered flag of convenience ship is owned by Swire & Sons Ltd of London and was engaged doing the domestic coastal trade carrying cargo from Newcastle to Indonesia via Brisbane.

The Maritime Union of Australia Assistant National Secretary Mick Doleman said "This domestic coastal trade was once reserved for highly regulated Australian ships to ensure it met the most stringent international safety and security regulations. It shouldn't be left to the lowest possible international shipper using the cheapest international crews," said Doleman. "These containers pose a serious and immediate danger to navigation as well as presenting a major environmental catastrophe. At this stage nobody can estimate how damaging the effects of 600 tonne of ammonium nitrate slowly leaching out of these boxes will have on our coast."

The union has called for the Rudd Government to rebuild the Australian merchant fleet for a "safer, more secure and reliable coastal trade." The union has highlighted that this is the second incident involving ammonium nitrate in recent weeks. The Panamanian registered Migah Tiga, FOC owned operated and crewed out of Indonesia is still alongside Newcastle after being condemned by class and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority 10 days ago. The vessel had started to load but after inspection showed it was not seaworthy, had to discharge.

The Pacific Adventurer has been detained at Hamilton Wharf by the federal authority, the Australian Maritime Safety Association. The company can face fines of up $1.5 million and the Ship’s Master fines of up to $500,000. According to the Weekend Australian, the ship under a different master had a collision with a Chinese patrol boat that killed 17 naval personnel in 2006 just before starting the Australian coastal trade route.

Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown called on the Environment Minister Peter Garret and the Prime Minister to visit the scene. "The midnight oil has struck these beaches but the environmental leader's nowhere to be seen," said Senator Brown in Brisbane. "This is a very serious environmental contamination, it should never have happened. The Prime Minister's ultimately got the responsibility for bringing much faster and much more broad scale aid on to those beaches," he said.

Senator Brown and Queensland Greens MP Ronan Lee flew over the berthed ship on Friday (March 13) and saw a 500 metre oil slick trailing down the Brisbane River from the ship.

Impacts of the Oil Spill on the Eco-system

Professor Ravi Naidu, Managing Director of the Co-operative Research Centre For Contamination Assessment And Remediation Of The Environment (CRC CARE), commented "This incident can potentially have a very significant impact on the aquatic ecosystem. Looking at the Queensland coast, we have a pristine environment. What this spill can do is impact these sensitive aquatic environment and in doing so it can impact the lifecycle of the marine ecosystem. The problem with this is that the oil spill will not disappear quickly. It will be present in the aquatic environment for a while. All it will do is disperse, and after dispersing the oil and the lubricant can be there not just for months, but for years unless we actively remediate it. Remediation and management of the oil spill can cost millions of dollars."

The spill is relatively small when compared to oil spills around the world. Ravi Naidu believes the Ammonium Nitrate is a lesser risk because it will ultimately dilute and disperse. "If the containers bust and it is released you have a concentration effect at that point and this can cause acute toxicity to fish but ultimately ammonium nitrate will dilute. But the problem with oil is that it doesn’t dilute, it doesn’t mix, it generally floats and this can lead to long-term contamination of the coastal region and sea water."

Dr Leonie Andersen, based at Vision Environment, said "“In comparison to the Gladstone spill (25 tonnes in 2006), it’s fairly devastating. At least with the Gladstone spill approximately two thirds of the oil was able to be recovered – there was a lot of control whereas in this case, I don’t think they have any control. I think it’s pretty severe with the weather conditions the way they are, it’s going to spread it up and down the coast at the whim of mother nature. Instead of a being a situation where they can control and recover, it’s just going to come back to clean up, and it’s not an easy job."

Dr Geoffrey Dutton, a spokeperson for the Australian Veterinary Association, said "Although all marine life are affected, the major problems are seen in sea birds". He outlined that cetaceans should not be affected to any great degree, but that many invertebrates that live on the polluted shorelines will be destroyed. "There are also lasting effects on the food chain and to those animals that would normally feed on other effected animals. Many of the toxins can have a bio-accumulative effect leading to a shortage of food long-term. Thus birds and mammals that are at the end of the food chain could have larger amounts of toxins with their bodies in subsequent years after the oil spill." he said.

Don Henry, executive director of Australian Conservation Foundation and former president of the Moreton Bay Preservation Society said "I would like to see four major reforms come out of this environmental disaster. 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 clean-up 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."

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