- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA (AP) - Authorities declared a disaster zone Friday along a stretch of some of Australia’s most popular beaches after tons of fuel oil that leaked from a cargo ship blackened the creamy white sand for miles.

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

National parks at Moreton and Bribie islands just north of the state capital of Brisbane were hardest hit by oil spilled Wednesday from the container ship Pacific Adventurer, and oil washed ashore in pockets along the 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 a few birds and a turtle were soaked in oil, but warned things could get worse.

Britain’s Swire Shipping Ltd., the Hong Kong-registered ship’s owner, said containers of fertilizer had slipped from the ship’s deck as it rocked in rough seas, ripping a hole in a fuel tank and spilling more than 11,000 gallons (42,500 liters) of heavy fuel oil into the sea. Later, the company said an inspection of the hull led it to conclude the amount of spilled oil was “significantly more” than that, but did not give a figure.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the ship, brought to port still leaking oil, would not be allowed to leave until officials were satisfied the spill had been explained.

“We have detained the ship,” authority chairman Graham Peachey said. “It’s not going anywhere until we release it.”

Queensland state officials accused the company of initially misleading the government about the size of the spill. Premier Anna Bligh said the company told the government the spill was much smaller, leading officials to predict there would be little environmental damage.

“We will be pursuing these ship’s owners for full compensation for the cost of this cleanup,” she said. “This could … be the worst environmental disaster we have faced.”

Under Australian law, the ship’s owners face fines of up to 2 million Australian dollars ($1.3 million) and could be liable for up to AU$250 million ($160 million) more in penalties for causing environmental damage.

Bligh declared some 37 miles (60 kilometers) of beaches a disaster zone, giving authorities the power to close them to the public. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery moved in to scrape up the blackened sand.

In a statement, 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.” The company and its insurers were talking with the government about cleanup costs, it said.

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

On Friday, tourists and residents gathered along the beaches.

Surfers left their boards at their hotels or home. One mother told her disappointed daughter her plastic paid and shovel would have to stay in the car because the beach was closed.

In the resort town of Coolum, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Brisbane, tourists trained their cameras on the black surf.

About 30 miles (45 kilometers) to the 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 Vicki Ayliffe, as she picked up soft drink containers and milk cartons coated with oil.

The state Environment Protection Agency said only 13 oil-affected animals had been spotted. Spokesman Clive Cook said agency workers 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 Newcastle to Indonesia when it struck the remnants of Cyclone Hamish off southeast Queensland. Thirty-one containers that held 694 U.S. tons (620 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate fertilizer fell from the deck, rupturing a fuel tank. The containers have not been found.

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