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Another oil spill threatens marine life

Workers try to clean up Australian beaches but it looks like a long haul

— PHOTO: AFP

A BEACH LOST: Oil washes up on sands on Moreton Island near Brisbane on Thursday.

BRISBANE: Wildlife workers rescued turtle eggs and captured a few oil-coated pelicans off Australia’s east coast on Thursday while officials assessed the extent of an oil spill from a cargo ship that was damaged in stormy seas.

The Pacific Adventurer’s fuel stores were punctured when 31 containers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer slipped off the ship early on Wednesday as the ship rocked in Australia’s rough eastern waters, where a cyclone had stormed for the past week.

The spill of up to 30 tonnes of oil created a slick spanning 10 km, and some of the oil had begun to wash up on beaches in Queensland, leaving a black, sticky mess as the tide receded.

At Marcoola Beach, lifeguard official David McLean said oil globules stretched for about a kilometre along the beach, which was closed due to the spill. “As you walk along it sticks to the bottom of your shoe like glue,” he said.

About 100 turtle eggs were collected from the beach by wildlife rescuers. Five oil-coated pelicans flew in and joined a daily feeding session at Tangalooma Resort on Moreton Island. Workers managed to catch three of them and the Environmental Protection Agency planned to evacuate them for chemical cleaning treatment, Trevor Hassard, from the resort’s Dolphin Education Centre, told the Brisbane Times.

“It just makes you want to cry,” Mr. Hassard was quoted as saying. “This stuff is so hard to remove. If an animal like a bird gets oil on it, it basically dies. There’s nothing we can do.”

He said the oil would obstruct the insulating effects of the birds’ feathers, and that they could be poisoned when they try to clean themselves.

Maritime Safety Queensland said it would take more than a week to clean up the spill.

Inquiry

An inquiry is being conducted into how the ship lost the containers, which held 620 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be used to make explosives. The containers have not been found.

Officials inspected the coast by air on Thursday, and about 50 people checked for oil pollution on land and cleaned oil from soiled beaches on the east and northern shores of Moreton Island and Marcoola Beach.

Mike Short of the Environmental Protection Agency said the fertilizer in the lost containers would be diluted enough to avoid major problems. Ammonium nitrate can be explosive when exposed to heat or chlorine.

“The oil is our greatest concern, both to the environment and wildlife,” he said. “Spills and wildlife don’t mix.”

Marine expert Mike Kingsford, from James Cook University in Queensland, said the spill was small by global standards but that the oil would sit in the sand for some time before it turned to tar and became benign.

He said the toxic effects would show within a few days, when plants, crustaceans and birds would probably die. — AP

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