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Oil spill off Australian coast creates environmental disaster

March 13, 2009 |  9:05 am

A huge oil slick blackens the sand of pristine beach near Cape Moreton on Moreton Island, Queensland, Australia. A cargo ship leaked tons of fuel oil off the coast of Queensland, Australia, creating one of the area's biggest environmental disasters.

Nearly 40 miles of beach has been blackened, causing authorities to declare the area coastland and local islands a disaster zone.

Worst hit have been the national parks on Bribie and Moreton islands and along the Sunshine Coast. There are now reports that the ship has also leaked oil in the Brisbane River after it was brought to port and detained by Australian Maritime Safety Authority port officials.

"This could be the worst environmental disaster we have faced," State Premier Anna Bligh said. "If there is any grounds for prosecution of this ship and its owners, we will not hesitate to take that action."

The ship was damaged by containers of ammonium nitrate, which fell overboard and ripped a hole in the hull as the ship was buffeted by rough seas caused by Cyclone Hamish. 

Why the ship was out in cyclonic seas would be the subject of a full investigation, Bligh stated.

A spokesman for the company Swire Shipping Ltd., which owns the Hong Kong-registered ship Pacific Adventurer, says that it is believed that the spill was "significantly more" than the original estimate of 11,000 gallons after an inspection of the hull by company divers.

In a statement, Swire said it "regrets the extent of the environmental pollution caused by spills of heavy fuel oil from the ship and that the company is offering assistance with the cleanup."

Nature conservation officers inspect a pelican covered in oil on the beach on Moreton Island near Brisbane, Australia.

The extent of wildlife affected by the spill is yet to be determined, but the numbers are certain to grow in the coming days. Thus far, more than a dozen oil-coated animals have been spotted, and state Environmental Protection Agency workers are trying to capture and clean these and any others they come across.

-- Kelly Burgess

Top photo: A huge oil slick blackens the beach near Cape Moreton on Moreton Island, Queensland, Australia. Credit: Dave Hunt / Queensland Environment Protection Agency

Bottom photo: Nature conservation officers inspect a pelican covered in oil on the beach on Moreton Island near Brisbane, Australia. Credit: Tertius Pickard / Associated Press

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