- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA (AP) - About half of the white sand beaches along Australia’s northeast coast that were blackened by an oil spill have been cleared, an official said Sunday.

Authorities declared a disaster zone along 37 miles (60 kilometers) of some of Australia’s most popular beaches in Queensland state after they were covered in heavy fuel oil that spilled from a cargo ship caught in rough seas Wednesday.

Hundreds of workers toiled through the weekend to scoop up black, sludgy sand on Moreton and Bribie islands just north of the state capital of Brisbane and along the Sunshine Coast. By Sunday, more than half of the affected coastline was oil-free, though many beaches remained closed, Queensland Deputy Premier Paul Lucas said.

“The battle is far from over, but the tide has very much turned in our direction,” Lucas said, adding he expected all beaches except those on Moreton Island to be fully cleared of oil within the next couple of days.

The exact amount of oil that leaked from the ship is not yet clear. On Sunday, Lucas said an estimated 66,000 gallons (250,000 liters) of oil spilled.

Anthony Tregoning, spokesman for Britain’s Swire Shipping Ltd., the Hong Kong-registered ship’s owner, said the company would not be releasing any further figures on how much oil had spilled.

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

Swire initially said containers of fertilizer 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 oil into the sea. On Friday, 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.

On Sunday, Swire released a statement denying it lied to authorities about the size of the spill. The ship’s officers had to measure the amount of leaked fuel in difficult conditions, and were at first unaware that there was a second hole leaking oil, the company said.

“At all times the master and officers of the ship and its owners have supplied the authorities with the best information available,” the company said. “This includes best estimates of fuel lost from the ship and remaining on board.”

Queensland officials have threatened Swire with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. Under Australian law, the company faces 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.

Maritime Safety Queensland said authorities served the captain of the Pacific Adventurer legal papers on Sunday ordering him to remain on the ship until the investigation is complete.

In a statement, Swire said it regretted the incident and said the company and its insurers were talking with the government about cleanup costs.

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