Mopping Up Oil

Peter Keyte relates: It was a dark and stormy night (actually it was) on the 10th of March 2009, when the Swire vessel Pacific Adventurer reported losing 31 shipping containers overboard, some 12 miles East of Moreton Island. Cyclone “Hamish” had tracked down the Queensland coast in the preceding days and had dissipated, however the seas were still angry with large swells and waves. 

‘Pacific Adventurer’

I received a fateful phone call at 0405am on the 11th of March being advised that the ship has reported striking the containers when they went over the side, and puncturing the heavy oil fuel tanks on the vessel. This resulted in 250 tonnes of heavy fuel oil being spilled into the ocean and washing ashore. 25kms of beach on Moreton Island were impacted and another 5kms of beach on the Sunshine Coast also spoiled by the oil washing up on the beach.

As a result, the Queensland Government reacted quickly, declaring a state disaster emergency and mobilising all available resources to tackle the worst oil spill ever recorded on the coastline of Australia. Maritime Safety Queensland were the lead agency, under what is known as the “National Plan” to combat oil spills, and Port of Brisbane was tasked with taking the lead in cleaning up Moreton Island.

During the next two months, there were over 2200 people deployed to Moreton Island, with up to 400 staff working on the beaches collecting oil waste from the spill on some days. The logistics on Moreton proved to be extremely difficult, with no sealed roads and heavy vehicles needing to traverse the Island in the sand tracks.  The rotating workforce had a number of obstacles to overcome, including access which was restricted by boat and barge, accommodation on the Island and keeping everyone safe. Other problems included vehicle access / regular boggings, transporting the workforce by 4wd buses seconded from the various resort and other tour operators, and providing communications in what proved to be a harsh environment.

All work was manual, using shovels and rakes to collect the waste and place it into bags and waste bins. The environmental risks were enormous, as we had to make sure than none of the oil was tracked inland where it could be consumed by the wildlife. Vehicles had to be quarantined to areas of operation, and decontamination stations were erected to ensure all persons, equipment and vehicles were washed before moving out of the oiled zones.

Oil spill from the ‘Pacific Adventurer’ stretching for 25 km along the coast of Moreton Island

Despite these hurdles, we were able to clean the 25kms of beach, removing more than 4000 tonnes of oily waste and returning the Island to its natural beauty well ahead of predicted time. The beaches were declared open again on the 11th of May 2009, and no oil has reappeared since.

It is difficult to describe in words some of the challenges, with simple matters such as providing toilets for the workers on the surf beach, but some innovative solutions were found. This included using a helicopter to transport Portaloos, and waste bins from the eastern side to western side of the island, and using small mechanical diggers to move the larger and heavier waste product. We also engaged the Quandamooka rangers and people to assist with the cleanup and provide strategic advice in areas of high heritage value. They proved to be of great value in protecting the island and returning it to its pristine state again.

The lessons learned from this oil spill have been adopted by the National regulators, and the solutions we found on Moreton can be used again if an event of this nature ever occurs again anywhere in the country or indeed the world.

Everyone involved in the clean-up should be proud of their efforts, and I was very proud of being able to lead the teams during this event, as Moreton Island holds a special place in my heart, with roots at Kooringal during my childhood and youth years.

(Extract from The Port of Brisbane, Its People and Its Personalities)