Australia beaches declared disaster zone after oil spill from Pacific Adventurer

Authorities close 37-mile stretch of coast hit by leak from cyclone-hit cargo ship

Some of Australia's most pristine and popular beaches were declared a disaster zone today after tons of oil that leaked from a stricken cargo ship rolled ashore as black sludge.

The government of north-eastern Queensland state denied it had acted too slowly to stop an environmental disaster, and threatened the shipping company with a multimillion-dollar compensation lawsuit.

National parks at Moreton and Bribie islands just north of the state capital of Brisbane were worst hit by the oil that leaked from the container ship Pacific Adventurer on Wednesday, and oil washed ashore in pockets along the popular Sunshine Coast.

The potential for long-term environmental damage was not clear. The affected area is far to the south of the Great Barrier Reef, which was not under threat.

Wildlife authorities said the only animals affected so far were a handful of birds that had been soaked in oil, but warned things could get worse as long as the slick remained.

Britain's Swire Shipping, the Hong Kong-registered ship's owner, said the equivalent of more than 11,000 gallons (42,500 litres) of heavy fuel oil escaped into the sea after containers slipped from the deck and ripped a hole in the hull as it rocked in cyclone-stirred waters.

Queensland's premier, Anna Bligh, said the company had earlier told the government the spill was much smaller, leading officials to predict there would be little environmental damage.

"We will be pursuing the ship's owners for full compensation for the cost of this clean-up," Bligh said.

Swire "should stand on notice that they will get a very large compensation claim from the Queensland government", she said.

"This could … be the worst environmental disaster we have faced."

Bligh declared 37 miles of normally white-sand beaches a disaster zone, giving authorities the power to close off public access. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery began moving on to affected beaches to scrape up the blackened sand.

Another smaller leak occurred from the Pacific Adventurer after it was brought to port for repairs in Brisbane, causing a mild slick in the river running through the city.

In a statement on its website, Swire said it "regrets 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".

It said the company and its insurers were in discussion with the government about clean-up costs.

Sunshine Coast tourism operators have already been hard-hit by weeks of bad weather, culminating in battering winds and driving rain associated with Cyclone Hamish, which roared offshore last week.

Today, tourists and locals gathered in pockets along the worst-hit beaches to survey the scene.

One mother told her disappointed daughter that she would have to leave her bucket and spade in the car because the beach was closed.

In the resort town of Coolum, about 60 miles north of Brisbane, tourists who usually snapped pictures of each other on a popular seaside boardwalk instead had their cameras trained on the ugly black surf.

About 30 miles south, government workers raked up oil-coated sand while wildlife officials tried to catch and clean birds soaked in the sticky substance.

"This is our beach. I've been coming here for years, and it's sad to see this happen here," said resident Vicki Ayliffe, as she picked up soft-drink containers and milk cartons coated with oil.

The state Environment Protection Agency was concerned about the spill's impact on wildlife but said only 13 oil-affected animals had been spotted.

A spokesman, Clive Cook, said agency workers had caught and cleaned a pelican, a turtle and a wading bird.

"At the moment we're very lucky … but obviously in these circumstances we're worried it might escalate," he said.

Pacific Adventurer was on its way from the port city of Newcastle to Indonesia when it struck the end of Cyclone Hamish off south-east Queensland.

In rough seas, 31 containers of ammonium nitrate fertiliser fell from the deck, rupturing a fuel tank. The containers have not been found.

Associated Press

The GuardianTramp

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