With only two-and-a-bit days of campaigning left before Queensland rushes to the polls, media attention remains stubbornly focused on premier Anna Bligh’s handling of last week’s disastrous 240 tonne oil spill off Moreton Bay. For as long as clean-up efforts continue, oxygen is being sucked out of the campaign’s key messages, with observers now predicting either a hung parliament or even an unlikely LNP victory.
Each day since the slick was discovered last Wednesday has brought more bad news — 40 hours after Brisbane Harbour was first alerted, the Queensland government was still referring to a “modest” spill of between 20 and 30 tonnes, based on statements provided by the stricken ship, the Pacific Adventurer. That number would be grudgingly revised upwards, first to 100 tonnes and then eventually to 240 tonnes — more than ten times initial estimates.
A battle is brewing over who did what when, with a focus on both the time taken by Queensland authorities to both properly enact the National Marine Oil Spill Contingency Plan and the time taken for the government to reveal the true extent of the damage. Overnight, the Liberals called for a Royal Commission. Three other investigations have already been launched.
They’ll have plenty of material to work with — a check of the timeline reveals some glaring inconsistencies in the Queensland government’s account.
According to a statement provided to Crikey by Maritime Safety Queensland, the responsible state body, at around 3:15am last Wednesday the crew of the Pacific Adventurer told Brisbane Harbour that 31 containers of ammonium nitrate had fallen off the ship east of Cape Moreton as winds lashed the coast. Around 5:00am, MSQ says it received the first reports from the ship’s captain that there was oil in the water, the containers having pierced the ship’s fuel tanks as they fell overboard.
By 9:10am, MSQ says it started to receive reports of “an oil spill seven kms long near Flinders Reef, heading towards Bribie Island.” An hour later, MSQ hit the skies for a better view with the Pacific Adventurer advising, at 11:30am, that “20-30 tonnes” of oil had leaked through a hole ripped in the port side when the containers fell overboard.
Maritime Safety Queensland captain John Watkinson seemed relative unfazed. In an story posted to the ABC website at 11:29am, he said the following:
“It pierced the hull right at the level where there was a fuel tank, so the ship has lost a little bit of heavy fuel oil.”
Still, Channel Seven decided to dispatch a chopper at 8:30am to the area to check for itself. Pilot Greg Davis told Crikey that although he was initially looking for the missing containers, it soon became apparent that authorities had a major slick on their hands. Davis immediately reported the emerging threat to water police.
It was quite obvious it was there… and shortly afterwards we saw some oil on Flinders Reef and we got down quite low to have a look at it. It was very thick. That’s when we noticed this slick was going all the way to Caloundra. So we suggested to the water police that it was a little bit more than just a minor spill and that it was certainly going to impact on the beaches around Bribie and Caloundra either later that day or into the next day.
We knew that it was going to impact on the shore but very little appeared to be being done until it came ashore at Cape Moreton.
Still, MSQ must have been a little worried — at 2pm it conducted an additional overflight and by 4pm it had confirmed (but not, it appears, to the premier’s office or the media), “a moderate oil slick around the east side of Moreton Island”.
Late that afternoon, Seven took to the skies again, shooting some extraordinary footage, aired on its 6pm news, indicating a full-scale environmental disaster was unfolding on Moreton Island with black sludge covering beaches. Davis relayed the following scene to ABC News:
“The beaches for about 10 kilometres south of Cape Moreton, around the cape are just black.
“It’s very very nasty sight to see because it’s just such a pristine area as anybody who’s been here will confess.”
Rogers said the slick was reminiscent of the disastrous 1978 Amoco Cadiz oil spill in France, while Moreton Island residents described a 10-metre slick and blackened rocks.
A relatively calm Watkinson described the incident to Seven as “Murphy’s Law, unfortunately it breached it right on a small oil tank and they lost an unknown quanitity of oil”, an assessment that appeared to chafe badly with the subsequent footage of environmental destruction.
After Seven’s footage aired, the rest of the media made frantic calls to state and federal government ministers to find out what they knew. But Queensland officials were stonewalling, claiming “they hadn’t heard anything”. Finally, just after midnight, 16 hours after the slick first became apparent, Anna Bligh’s office issued a two line release claiming that a “light spill” had taken place, perhaps in the hope that the oil would magically disperse in the wee hours.
But for MSQ, things were about to get worse. ABC radio’s AM program reported these extraordinary comments from MSQ’s Paul Hall, made late the previous night, seemingly in defiance of his own organisation’s work on the Wednesday:
“The only report we’ve had is from you guys and we’re unable to confirm or deny it at this stage at night.
“Our plan and we’re going to stick with the plan is to go and have a look for ourselves at first light with a few planes.”
But, of course, MSQ had already conducted two overflights on Wednesday, at 10:30am and 2pm, alongside the Seven chopper.
When questioned by Crikey, MSQ said its two flyovers on Wednesday “did not reveal the extent or impact of the spill”. “The oil would have been hard to detect due to the prevailing weather conditions,” it added.
But according to its own timeline, MSQ knew of the existence of at least a “moderate” spill by 4pm, and would have seen the Seven footage before the Premier eventually decided to call the spill “light” hours later.
MSQ’s action plan has also been questioned. Under the National Plan, there are a range of options available in the event of a slick, including the use of chemical dispersants and booms. But it appears MSQ were reluctant to use them, citing four to six metre swells as a reason not to proceed. Still, in calmer conditions at Moreton Island, there appeared to be no booms in place to protect the famed estuaries, as the oil washed relentlessly ashore.
By Thursday afternoon, after yet another flyover at 2pm, MSQ said the full extent of the damage was becoming clearer. But in a repeat of the previous day, as the hours ticked by, the government again remained mute. Late on Thursday night, with aerial shots all over the media and Sunshine Coast beachgoers inundated by a tarmac-like sludge, MSQ was forced to admit there was now a “possibility” of a “100,000 litre” [100 tonne] spill. This was the first official deviation from the Pacific Adventurer’s initial 20 tonne assessment.
Retired oil slick expert Ray Lipscombe, formerly of AMSA, told Crikey that MSQ should have been at least able to work out, well before Thursday night, whether the slick was greater than the claimed 20 tonnes.
“If oil is on the water, covering a certain area, you can certainly work out quite quickly whether it was 200 tonnes or 20 tonnes…obviously it was larger than that, and perhaps it should’ve been picked up in the surveillance stage”, he said.
On the question of the government’s reliance, for two full days, of the Pacific Adventurer’s initial 20-30 tonne assessment, Lipscombe was damning:
“With all due respect, you don’t rely on them [captain’s assessments].”
After a day of frantic recovery action on Friday, by Saturday things were looking even grimmer. A frazzled Deputy Premier briefed the media and accused the ship’s owners, Swire Shipping, of outright lies. “They originally told us 20 to 30 tonnes,” Paul Lucas told the ABC. “It is now apparent that it was about 230 tonnes.”
Then, in an extraordinary attack, Lucas and Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese rounded on the Pacific Adventurer’s captain Bernadino Santos, accusing him of fabricating the initial estimates and threatening to lay charges.
“When someone has lied to you about the level of leakage of oil then it is a very, very difficult situation to be in, and I want it fully investigated,” Lucas said.
“If these people have done the wrong thing in relation to misleading us, I want the book thrown at them. There is no place for people who don’t do the right thing.”
On Sunday morning, Bligh followed up on Insiders:
“Without a doubt, we were misled early by the operators of this ship about how much oil was in the water.”
Later that day, Santos had his passport confiscated and was told to remain on his ship, now in Brisbane’s Hamilton dock, as investigations proceeded.
But rather than deliberately deceiving authorities, it seems plausible that Santos was simply making his best assessment at the time, based on the information available to him. Swire Shipping say they had no real way of accurately knowing how much oil had been lost until it docked at Hamilton on Friday and divers were sent down to examine the hull. They certainly didn’t have the benefit of either aerial surveillance, or the federal government’s oil slick modeling tools.
Interestingly, on the Friday it was Swire, not the Queensland government, that alerted media to a second hole in the boat, even though Swire says that MSQ knew about the damage as soon as they did.
On Friday, MSQ’s Watkinson said this to assembled media: “We covered the area as best we could with the resources we had at the time,” he said.
“I’m never happy with all the response and as I said we can do it better and we may do that the next time … and let’s hope there’s not a next time.”
But with a state election, three investigations and a possible Royal Commission looming, by then Anna Bligh’s ship may have well and truly sailed.