Friday, 27 March 2009

Australian Beaches Disaster Zones as ‘Pacific Adventurer’ Spills Oil

Brisbane, March 18: Last week’s ‘Pacific Adventurer’ oil spill, the worst in Queensland’s waters in the last thirty years, has infuriated Australians and reinforced opinions of an industry that always hits the headlines for the wrong reasons.

The Swire Shipping owned container vessel was on a voyage from Newcastle to Brisbane when it was caught in tropical cyclone Hamish early on March 11, and thirty one containers of ammonium nitrate were washed overboard from the deck stow in gale force winds. What caused the oil spill was the fact that at least one of these containers hit and ruptured the Adventurer’s fuel tanks in rough weather, spilling bunkers into the sea. Matters were made worse by Swire’s initial declaration that only about 30mt of oil had leaked. Although that figure was revised later to 43mt, the true extent of oil spill is now believed by the Australian authorities to be around six times greater, at around 250mt.

The initial mix of oil and ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in explosives, formed a slick ten miles long and two miles wide, washing up on Moreton Island and on the beaches of the Sunshine Coast. Moreton Island is a marine sanctuary for birds, pelicans, dolphins and turtles. One week after the incident, rescuers are still struggling to protect this delicate ecosystem.

Post incident, Swire shipping offered ‘all possible assistance’ to Queensland to clean up the oil spill, flying in an expert and equipment from Dubai and announcing that the company and its insurers would meet all obligations and responsibilities. They also appointed a media consultant in Australia. Regardless, there has been widespread criticism in the Australian press that the company did not divulge the true extent of the oil spill and that its media consultants were either unavailable or unable to provide basic information about the spill, especially outside office hours. Swire’s public relations nightmare is undoubtedly compounded by the fact that the affected coast hit by the oil spill boasts of the most pristine beaches in that region, as also because the company made a statement a day after the accident saying that just 42 tonnes or “a small quantity” of oil had leaked. Although this statement was corrected later, Australian authorities and media allege initial action would have been on a much larger scale had the oil spill figures been accurately known. The Australian media has criticised the owners for ‘intentionally misleading authorities’.

Initial speculation that the ammonium nitrate might provoke an explosion has now been put to rest, even as tonnes of the chemical are reportedly loose on the Adventurer’s main deck. Meanwhile, navy teams have been called to find the missing containers. Although one expert described the exercise ‘like finding a needle in a haystack’, the mine hunter vessel HMAS Yarra reports at time of writing that it has probably identified 21 containers with its sonar about 270 miles away from where they had been washed overboard.

Australian politicians have criticised the effectiveness of the oil spill response, some suggesting that criminal action should be taken against the Master and the Owners of the ill fated ship. Queensland premier Bligh has declared the area affected by the spill a ‘disaster area’. A major wildlife rescue operation is reportedly in progress.

The Pacific Adventurer, a 1991 built 25561DWT vessel registered in Hong Kong, has reportedly been detained by AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Queensland authorities have threatened the ship and the crew with multimillion dollar lawsuits. AdelaideNow reports that ‘papers have been served on the Master of the Pacific Adventurer, asking him to remain on board’. They also report that the Owners may face fines of up to $2 million dollars and an environmental damage bill of $250 million, and that the Adventurer’s Captain could be fined $200,000. Meanwhile, tourism operators are said to be irate at the incident, as it has decimated their revenues. In response, authorities have launched a media campaign to address the plummeting tourist numbers, although people are staying away from the blackened beaches.

Industry experts are certain that this latest incident will undoubtedly result in the Australian authorities tightening up regulatory mechanisms. They point to the extremely bad press the industry has elicited in Australia and the strong statements emerging from the Australian authorities as ominous signs of things to come.


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