- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA (AP) - Nearly 40 miles of Australian beaches have been blackened by oil spilled from a cargo ship caught in stormy seas this week, leading the state premier Friday to declare the area a disaster zone and warn the ship’s operators could face legal action.

Popular tourist spots along the Sunshine Coast, as well as Moreton Island and Bribie Island, were declared disaster zones, as 37 miles (60 kilometers) of white-sand beaches were affected by the spill Wednesday.

Authorities said 34 U.S. tons (30 metric tons) of oil were lost when containers slipped from the Pacific Adventurer cargo ship and punctured fuel stores in the hull as it rocked in Australia’s rough eastern waters, where a cyclone stormed through for the past week.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said the spill was larger than reported but did not give a figure. Her office said they did not have actual numbers yet.

“The full extent only became obvious yesterday with aerial surveillance,” Bligh told Nine Network television. “The operator of the ship did not provide full information about the amount of oil that was lost from the ship. This can’t be cleaned up until it actually hits the beaches and that’s what’s happening at the moment.”

At Coolum, one of the most popular surf beaches on the Sunshine Coast north of state capital Brisbane, dark brown and often black surf rolled ashore instead of the usual pristine whitecaps and aqua waters of the Coral Sea on this tourist strip.

At Buddina Beach local resident Vicki Ayliffe bemoaned the lack of a coordinated response to the spill.

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

Workers raked up oil-coated sand, while wildlife officials were trying to catch birds coated with oil in order to clean them.

Bligh said the ship’s operators would be held liable for the costs of the massive cleanup operation.

“We are investigating the entire incident and if there is any basis for a prosecution, we will not hesitate to take that action,” she said. “The total cost of the cleanup will rest with this company.”

Declaring the area a disaster zone empowers police and authorities to close beaches and restrict access.

The Pacific Adventurer lost 31 containers that held 694 U.S. tons (620 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The containers have not been found.

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