BRISBANE, Australia – Authorities declared a disaster zone Friday along a stretch of some of Australia’s most popular beaches after tons of fuel oil that leaked from a cargo ship blackened the creamy white sand for miles.
The government of Queensland state denied it had acted too slowly to stop an environmental disaster, and threatened the shipping company with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
National parks at Moreton and Bribie islands just north of the state capital of Brisbane were hardest hit by oil spilled Wednesday from the container ship Pacific Adventurer, and oil washed ashore in pockets along the Sunshine Coast.
The potential for long-term environmental damage was not clear. The affected area is far to the south of the Great Barrier Reef, which was not under threat.
Wildlife authorities said a few birds and a turtle were soaked in oil, but warned things could get worse.
Britain’s Swire Shipping Ltd., the Hong Kong-registered ship’s owner, said containers of fertilizer had 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 of heavy fuel oil into the sea. Later, the company said an inspection of the hull led it to conclude the amount of spilled oil was “significantly more” than that.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the ship, brought to port still leaking oil, would not be allowed to leave until officials were satisfied the spill had been explained.
“We have detained the ship,” authority chairman Graham Peachey said. “It’s not going anywhere until we release it.”
Queensland state officials accused the company of initially misleading the government about the size of the spill. Premier Anna Bligh said the company told the government the spill was much smaller, leading officials to predict there would be little environmental damage.
“We will be pursuing these ship’s owners for full compensation for the cost of this cleanup,” she said. “This could … be the worst environmental disaster we have faced.”
Bligh declared some 37 miles of beaches a disaster zone, giving authorities the power to close them to the public. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery moved in to scrape up the blackened sand.