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. Oil spill ship's owners misled us: Australian authorities

"Without a doubt, we were misled early by the operators of this ship about how much oil was in the water," Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told ABC television.
by Staff Writers
Melbourne (AFP) March 15, 2009
The operators of a ship that spilled oil along the popular tourist beaches of northeast Australia misled authorities about the extent of the disaster, the state government said Sunday.

Officials initially believed the Hong Kong-flagged "Pacific Adventurer" had lost 20-30,000 litres (5,300-7,900 gallons) of oil but it has since emerged that almost a quarter of a million litres spilled from the vessel.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, whose government has been accused of reacting too slowly to the disaster that has blackened dozens of beaches, said the ship's operators had not been candid about how much oil it was carrying.

"Without a doubt, we were misled early by the operators of this ship about how much oil was in the water," she told ABC television.

With a state election looming in Queensland next Saturday, Bligh defended efforts to clean up in the wake of the spill, which occurred early last Wednesday when the ship hit heavy seas whipped up by a cyclone.

She said there was no point in clearing the oil that was fouling beaches until it had finished washing ashore.

"I can understand people think it's a good idea to get out there from day one and start cleaning up," Bligh said.

"But the reality is we still have oil coming onto the beach. You don't take it off the beach until you know it's all there otherwise we are stripping layer and layer of sand that has already be eroded by cyclonic activities."

The ship's owner Swire Shipping denied lying about the amount of oil that has spilled.

It said the initial estimates proved incorrect because they took into account only one hole in the ship's hull, unaware there was a second, larger hole below the waterline that allowed more oil to escape.

"At all times the master and officers of the ship and its owners have supplied the authorities with the best information available," the company said in a statement.

Swire faces 1.5 million dollars (977,000 US dollars) in fines if found guilty of environmental or maritime breaches and has already said it will cover the costs of the clean up.

The cargo ship also lost 31 containers -- or 620 tonnes -- of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, which authorities will attempt to locate with sonar.

Apart from the oil damage, experts fear the fertiliser could cause harmful algal blooms, suffocate fish and kill natural habitats.

Hundreds of people are working to clean the beaches and save affected wildlife.

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