Nearly 40 miles (60 km) of beaches along the Australian east coast has been declared a disaster zone due to the massive amounts of oil and chemicals that leaked out from a Hong-Kong registered cargo ship on Wednesday.

According to Queensland state official, the beaches along the Moreton Island[1], Bribie Island[2], and the southern area of the Sunshine Coast[3] have taken the hardest hit and the oil spill is the worst to affect Queensland in decades. You can see an animation showing the sequence of events here:

The Hong-Kong registered ship, a 185 metre container ship named Pacific Adventurer, was enroute from Newcastle to Indonesia via Brisbane when it got caught in Cyclone Hamish and lost over 30 shipping containers in the heavy seas about seven nautical miles east of Cape Moreton. The falling containers damaged the ship which resulted in heavy fuel oil getting into the water.

As of now, the Environmental Protection Agency, Emergency Services, and local government are working together in an effort to limit the consequences of the spill. Massive cleaning up efforts has been launched and affected animals are being treated by trained wildlife carers. According to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the clean-up effort could end up costing millions of dollars.

Queensland State Premier Anna Bligh says that Swire Shipping, the company owning the ship, could end up paying for the clean-up. “We are investigating the entire incident and if there is any basis for a prosecution, we will not hesitate to take that action – the total cost of the clean-up will rest with this company.” If found guilty of environmental breaches, Swire Shipping may also be facing fines of up to AUS $1,500,000 (US$ 977,000).

Initially, reports of the accident contained the number 20-30 tonnes of leaked oil, but the true number has now turned out be ten times this figure – a shocking 230 tonnes of oil. Oil is not only dangerous to wildlife in the short run; it is carcinogenic and can cause long-term effects.

The oil is however not the only problem; the shipping containers from the Pacific Adventurer where filled with ammonium nitrate fertiliser and environmental experts now fear that the nutrients will cause algal blooms and oxygen scarcity in the region. Radar-equipped aircrafts are therefore currently searching for the missing 620 tonnes of chemical fertilizer, in hope of finding as many containers as possible intact.

In a statement from Swire Shipping the company ensures that it and its insurers will meet all their responsibilities.

The company very much regrets the environmental impact caused as a consequence of the vessel being caught in Cyclone Hamish. The company and its insurers will meet all their responsibilities. It has chartered a helicopter to survey the extent of the oil slick and to try to locate the containers. The company is in contact with Queensland government officials and has offered to provide any information that will help the clean up campaign to be targeted efficiently to minimise beach pollution and environmental impact. The companys oil pollution expert is arriving from the Middle East tonight to assist local authorities and technical experts with the clean up.

You can find more information about the disaster on Maritime Safety Queensland, a government agency of Queensland Transport:

For information about volunteering or reporting sick or injured wildlife, contact the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency:

Statements and information from Swire Shipping can be found here:

[1] Moreton Island National Park

[2] Bribie Island Recreation Area

[3] Sunshine Coast