Queensland's biggest oil spill in 35 years

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Friday, January 27, 2006

A oil spill in Queensland, Australia has been described as a tragedy for the area's marine life and the biggest oil spill in 35 years. The clean-up is expected to take up to a week and cost more than AU$3 million.

The spill occurred in Gladstone Harbour on the central Queensland coast, late on Tuesday night, after 25,000 litres of heavy fuel poured from a coal carrier. The accident happened when a tug rammed into a Korean coal carrier, rupturing its fuel tank.

Several government agencies and four skimmer vessels were called in after the "Tom Tough" struck the Korean-owned, Panamanian-registered bulk coal carrier "Global Peace" - puncturing its fuel tank as it was about to berth.

"It'll just annihilate the stocks plus everything up and down the food chain in relation to what the different fishermen catch," local fishing spokesman Warwick Sheldon said. "It's right in the middle of the commercial banana prawn fishing season at the moment – this has the potential to just wipe out their stocks."

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said an investigation was under way to determine whether anyone would be prosecuted. "There will be no cost to the taxpayer because of the law," he said. The clean-up costs will be met by the ship's owners in accordance with international maritime law.

The Wildlife Protection Association of Australia (WPAA) says the spill inside the harbour occurred in the worst place possible. "It's probably the worst place that we could ever have a spill because it's inside the harbour," said WPAA president Pat O'Brien. "It's an area where there's a whole range of animals there that'll be affected by it. There's dugongs and porpoises and animals like that, that breathe air, that come to the surface regularly. Turtles again too, they'll finish up with oil all over them."

It is the worst oil spill in Queensland since the Oceanic Grandeur ran aground in the Torres Strait in 1970 and the second spill in Gladstone's Harbour within a week. About a tonne of oil spilled in the harbour last week.

A marine investigator from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is investigating the incident. Investigation leader Peter Foley says the type of oil involved has added to problem. "It's certainly more difficult to control than perhaps crude oil because it tends to be around the same specific gravity or same density as sea water," he said.