Oil spill disaster a timely warning

The recent Queensland oil spill is a salutary reminder of what the shipping industry can inflict on our waterways.

Countless oil spills and other incidents around the world suggest they have a lot to answer for. Cyclone Hamish was no secret – we had been warned for days it was on its way- but the departing Port authority and/or the captain of the Hong Kong registered flag of convenience ship the Pacific Adventurer apparently decided it was safe to leave port. The 17-year-old ship was carrying Australian cargo from Newcastle to Brisbane on the coastal domestic run (once reserved for Australian shipping) when it hit heavy seas and lost thirty-one containers holding the fertiliser ammonium nitrate – which in the marine environment poses an extreme hazard, and which can act as an explosive if in the presence of other materials – such as OIL. A further 3 tonnes was spilled on deck, and the hull was torn open by the sliding containers.  

Not only have thousands of paid and volunteer hours gone into cleaning up after the shipping industry, two Australian Navy vessels and crew have been assigned to recovery of the missing containers, and have already been working on that task for over one week.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the International Transport Workers' Federation say that domestic coastal trade was once reserved for highly regulated Australian ships to ensure it meet the most stringent international safety and security regulations. Now, it has been left to "the lowest possible international shipper using the cheapest international crews," says MUA’s Mick Doleman. The MUA have described this as yet another rust bucket undermining the Australian industry and our marine environment[1].

The submerged containers pose a serious danger to navigation as well as presenting a potential environmental disaster. If it disperses in the marine environment it may trigger an algal bloom and water eutrophication. Nobody is too sure how damaging the effects of 600 tonne of ammonium nitrate slowly leaching out of these boxes will be to our marine environment – but it is pretty clear that the hundreds of tonnes of fuel oil that subsequently washed up on our beaches is an environmental catastrophe. 

One can only imagine the impacts of such a massive spill if it were to occur in Port Phillip Bay – with its narrow entrance and huge expanse of largely landlocked water (1950 sq. km of water surrounded by 260 km of coastline).




Moreton Island Beach 12th March 2009 Image: Courier Mail


The oil spill and loss of containers overboard is appalling for Queensland’s marine environment, and we have supporters in Queensland who have dedicated their time over the last 3 weeks to clean up the mess created by the shipping industry.




Pacific Adventurer still spilling oil as it is tugged into Port in the Brisbane River. Image: Courier Mail


Blue Wedges raised concerns about increased risks of ships groundings and oil spills at both the 2004 and 2007 Channel Deepening Hearings. Our expert witness Cpt. Frank Hart gave compelling evidence that deeper draught ships sitting lower in the narrow rocky sided channel through The Entrance would mean more likelihood of groundings – with potentially devastating consequences for the Bay. Cpt. Hart also gave evidence that the width of the Great Ship Channel through The Entrance did not meet international standards for a channel with the strong cross currents which routinely occur at The Entrance. Along with much other damning evidence from independent exports such as Dr. Graham Harris and Dr. Simon Roberts, Cpt. Hart’s concerns were reflected in the 2004 EES Panel reporting that the project should not proceed at that stage.


The findings stunned the business supporters of channel deepening and what followed was a stunning manipulation of proper process. After considerable pressure from some of the business sector, the then Bracks government commissioned a “Supplementary” EES. The SEES was conducted very differently.


The first EES panel was not re-appointed, public input was severely limited, no cross examination of witnesses was allowed, and a tight deadline for reporting to the Minister was imposed. All questions had to be put in writing to the secretariat. If the Chairman deemed the questions appropriate the questions were then passed to the PoMC’s legal team for reply. The responses, if given at all, were conveyed through the Chair, at some future time, to the person posing the question. Perhaps you were there to hear the reply – perhaps you weren’t. The panel also allowed the PoMC to present much new evidence after all other submitters had given their evidence and even after the formal hearings had been completed. That late evidence, including the likelihood of mobile rocks in the Great Ship Channel and the long term damage from rockfall and scour at The Entrance could not be properly challenged or examined in the public domain.


Not surprisingly a very different process came up with a very different recommendation that the project, with all the same risks and considerably more cost than in 2004, could now proceed. No wonder we felt compelled to ask for Mr. Garrett’s assistance via the Federal court. Sadly, no assistance was forthcoming from that quarter.       

Our concerns about shipping risks at The Entrance were dismissed by Mr. Garrett and the 2007 Inquiry, but have not been allayed.


The question remains- if a grounding occurs at Port Phillip Heads as a result of a flawed channel design, who would be held responsible and who would pay for the clean-up. The channel designer? The Port of Melbourne Corporation? The ship's captain?

[1] MUA Media Release 11th March 2009

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