Questions are being asked about how the cargo ship Pacific Adventurer, carrying the mining explosive and fertiliser ingredient ammonium nitrate for the chemical company Orica, was not prevented from sailing into waters whipped up by the category four cyclone Hamish.
Greens Senator Bob Brown said Commonwealth authorities need to explain how the ship was allowed to travel into areas that were badly affected by a tropical cyclone.
"We need to know that there are huge resources being mobilised to offset the potential environmental and human consequences of this spill, and to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said. "It should not have happened on this occasion."
The Swire ship Pacific Adventurer reportedly lost 31 twenty-foot containers of the chemical overboard, none of which have been found to date. One of the containers is thought to have pierced the ship’s hull and fuel tank, releasing more than 20 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the ocean. A small quantity of the ammonium nitrate has also spilled, which if mixed with fuel can ignite in an explosion. It is feared that the containers of ammonium nitrate have sunk and will lead to an algal bloom in environmentally sensitive areas.
The oil slick along the south-east Queensland coast has covered two Sunshine Coast beaches and has also enveloped Moreton Island. Maritime Safety Queensland says it will take more than a week to clean up the spill, which leaked from the ship off Stradbroke Island yesterday.
The clean-up operation is expected to cost about $100,000 a day. Oil has spread to Wurtulla Beach near Caloundra and Mudjimba Beach next to Marcoola Beach, which is one of the worst-affected areas.
The oil has affected marine life from birds to turtles. Photos showing oil-covered turtle eggs and day-old hatchlings are appearing on the internet.
Trevor Hassard from Tanglalooma Resort on Moreton Island told the ABC the oil is threatening a turtle rookery on the island's east coast.
"The potential for this to become an absolute disaster is really right there," he said.
Captain John Watkinson from Maritime Safety Queensland told the ABC the 31 containers of ammonium nitrate are still missing.
"Some of them can float but I think in the sea conditions in all likelihood they've found their way to the bottom," he said.
The shipping company could face fines up to $1.5 million.