'Catastrophe' fear over Australian oil spill

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AUSTRALIA'S national parks along the Sunshine Coast were yesterday declared an official disaster zone after thousands of gallons of fuel oil leaked from a British cargo ship.

Nearly 40 miles of creamy white sand turned black, with wildlife officials attempting to catch and clean birds soaked by the oil slick off Moreton and Bribie islands in Queensland.

The extent of any long-term environmental damage is as yet unclear. The affected area is far to the south of the Great Barrier Reef, which is not considered to be under threat.

The state Environment Protection Agency said yesterday only 13 oil-affected animals had been spotted. Spokesman Clive Cook said staff had caught and cleaned three of those – 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.

Fighting off accusations it was not acting fast enough to avert an environmental catastrophe, the government impounded the Hong Kong-registered Pacific Adventurer and threatened its owner, the London-based Swire Shipping Ltd (SSL), with a multi-million-pound compensation lawsuit.

In a statement on its website, SSL said containers of fertiliser aboard the ship, which was on its way from the port city of Newcastle to Indonesia when it struck the remnants of Cyclone Hamish off southeast Queensland, had slipped from the deck as it rocked in the still churning waters on Wednesday, ripping a hole in a fuel tank and spilling more than 11,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into the sea.

Following a diver's inspection of the hull, SSL later concluded that the amount of spilled oil was "significantly more" than that, but did not elaborate, leading Queensland state officials to accuse the company of misleading it about the size of the spill.

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 this ship's owners for full compensation for the cost of this clean-up," she said, and added that SSL "should stand on notice" that it would get "a very large" compensation claim from the Queensland government.

"If there are any grounds for prosecution of this ship and its owners, we will not hesitate to take that action. This could ... be the worst environmental disaster we have faced," she warned.

Under Australian law, SSL faces a fine of up to AU$2 million (1 million) and could be liable for up to 117 million more in penalties for causing environmental damage.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority announced that the ship, which was taken to port still leaking oil, would not be allowed to leave until officials were satisfied the circumstances of the spill had been properly explained.

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

Declaring 37 miles of coastline a disaster zone has given local authorities the power to close off public access. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery yesterday began moving on to affected beaches to scrape up the blackened sand as tourists and locals gathered in pockets along the worst-hit beaches to survey the scene.

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.

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