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Clean-up begins after Aust cargo ship spill

Published: 10:39AM Thursday March 12, 2009 Source: AAP

A massive clean-up operation is underway after toxic fuel and fertiliser was lost from a cargo ship off southeast Queensland raising fears of ecological damage.

Amid fierce seas whipped up by Cyclone Hamish, 31 containers carrying 620 tonnes of ammonium nitrate toppled into the sea near Moreton Island on Wednesday morning.

Up to 30 tonnes of oil also leaked from the 180-metre Pacific Adventurer when it was damaged by a falling container, creating a slick reported to cover an estimated 10 kilometres.

A Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) spokesman on Thursday morning said more than 50 people were scattered around beaches on Moreton Island, where they are cleaning up oil, and Bribie Island and Caloundra, where they are checking for oil pollution.

The collaboration effort involves people from MSQ, the Environmental Protection Agency, Queensland Parks and Wildlife and Brisbane and Sunshine Coast Councils.

The spokesman said the clean-up was being helped by rough weather conditions, pushing a lot of the oil offshore.

"Oil is a natural resource, it just breaks up naturally under weather, including the sun and water," he said.

The cargo ship lost 31 of its 50 shipping containers at about 3.15am (AEST) on Wednesday, when it was seven nautical miles east of Cape Moreton.

The MSQ spokesman said there were currently no disruptions to shipping in the area and it was probable the 620 tonnes of ammonium nitrate would never be recovered.

"It happened outside of Moreton Bay, on the eastern cape, in water with about 200 metres depth," he said.

"If they sank it's likely they'll stay there."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the oil spill could potentially kill any wildlife it came into contact with.

But the ammonium nitrate should dilute enough so as not to cause any major problems other than algal blooms, EPA incident response adviser Mike Short said.

Marine expert Mike Kingsford, from James Cook University, said the threats posed by the ammonium nitrate included algal blooms, burns and deaths to fish and seagrass, and physical damage to the ocean floor from the containers.

Maritime Union of Australia assistant secretary Mick Doleman said the spill showed the need for greater regulation of shipping.

"This heightens the urgency of acting sooner rather than later," he said.