Page last updated at 13:46 GMT, Sunday, 15 March 2009

Australia oil coast 'half clear'

A conservation worker handles a pelican covered in oil on Moreton Island near Brisbane, Australia (13/03/2009)
The slick caused an environmental disaster along the coast

About half of the beaches affected by an oil spill along the coast of Queensland in north-east Australia have now been cleared, say officials.

Hundreds of workers spent the weekend clearing the beaches but officials have said the cost of the clean-up operation could run into millions of dollars.

An estimated 230 tonnes of oil was leaked into the sea from a ship damaged by a tropical storm.

Its captain was ordered to remain on board while investigations continue.

Dozens of beaches along a 60km stretch (37 mile) on the Sunshine Coast were declared disaster zones after the spill on Wednesday.

Queensland's Deputy Premier Paul Lucas said hundreds of volunteers and workers had managed to clear about 50% of affected areas but that many beaches remained closed.

"The battle is far from over, but the tide has very much turned in our direction," he said.

Mr Lucas said the clean up would cost "many millions of dollars".

Election issue

An oil slick blackens the sand near Cape Moreton on Moreton Island, Queensland 12 March
Some 60km (37 miles) of coastline has been hit by the oil spill

Swire Shipping, the owners of the Hong-Kong registered Pacific Adventurer, have denied intentionally misleading the authorities about the amount of oil which had been spilt.

The company had originally said only 20-30 tonnes of oil had been released from the ship.

But on Saturday, Queensland state authorities said the spill was ten times worse than they at first thought, and warned that the toxic sludge was carcinogenic and threatening wildlife.

Swire Shipping issued a statement saying they had been unaware of a second hole in the ship's hull when they first reported the spill.

"At all times the master and officers of the ship and its owners have supplied the authorities with the best information available. This includes best estimates of fuel lost from the ship and remaining on board," said the statement.

The company faces fines of up to A$1.5m ($977,000; £703,000) if found guilty of environmental breaches, as well as clean-up costs of A$100,000 a day.

The ship's captain has been served with legal papers barring him from leaving the ship until officials have completed investigations.

While I appreciate people want to get down there and help clean the beaches it really has to be done under supervision with all of the right protection
Anna Bligh, Queensland premier

The Queensland authorities have been criticised for what was perceived to be a slow response to the crisis.

The BBC's Phil Mercer in Sydney says the environmental disaster has become a dominant issue ahead of a state election next weekend.

Opposition leader Lawrence Springborg said of the government's response had been "a debacle of extraordinary magnitude".

But Queensland's Premier Anna Bligh said it had been important to have a clear plan for the operation before taking heavy equipment onto already damaged beaches.

She said areas like Moreton Island, a marine sanctuary worst hit by the oil spill, were fragile ecosystems that did not have the facilities to accommodate hundreds of volunteers.

"While I appreciate people want to get down there and help clean the beaches it really has to be done under supervision with all of the right protection," she told reporters in Brisbane.

The crisis was sparked when high seas whipped up by Cyclone Hamish toppled 31 containers of ammonium nitrate fertiliser from the deck of the Pacific Adventurer.

As they fell, the containers punctured the hull and released the oil, also taking 620 tonnes of the chemical fertiliser to the ocean floor.

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

Map showing affected areas

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