Disaster zone as oil slick threatens wildlife

REBECCA TRIGGER, MICHELLE RIDLEY and ANGELA POWNALL

Update, 4.05pm Flying Fish Cove’s crystal clear waters are cloudy and topped with a brown mousse while its rocky beach is slicked with black oil and littered with oil drums.

The picturesque bay’s idyllic aura has been spoiled by the stench of fuel and the Christmas Island main township’s beach is closed and a pollution hazard.

Islanders and visitors were determined to restore Flying Fish Cove to its former glory today when they did the first clean-up in the aftermath of Sunday’s cargo ship grounding.

MV Tycoon was moored at the island’s port and midway through being loaded with phosphate dust when it broke free in rough weather and high seas.

The vessel snapped in half yesterday against the cove’s high cliffs, leaking tonnes of oil, diesel and phosphate into Flying Fish Cove’s blue waters.

Around 80 people volunteered to don protective suits, masks and gloves to clear pieces of the broken ship and clean up the beach.

The stricken MV Tycoon loomed behind them ominously as they worked this afternoon – its fate and ultimate impact of its grounding still unknown.

Volunteers are expected to do daily clean-ups for the next week at least, unless MV Tycoon spills more fuel and phosphate which is a very real possibility.

Diane Hawk, who has been on Christmas Island for two months visiting a friend and offered help to clean up, said it was horrific to see the pollution spill happen.

"I’m absolutely devastated. It was awful to see and I’m in awe of the power of nature," she said.

Matt Verney, oil spill response co-ordinator from WA’s Department of Transport, said the wild weather had helped to disperse the spill and break down the oil.

While ocean conditions have improved, it was still not possible for anyone to get onto the MV Tycoon to find out how much oil, diesel and pollutants are still on board and able to leak out.

"The concern with the oil at the moment is the long-term impact on the island," Mr Verney said.

"The weather had a significant role in assisting us with the dispersal."

Monsoonal weather forecast to hit Christmas Island later this week has raised fears the ship could be broken up further if it is not removed soon.

No resources have yet been allocated to salvage the vessel.

Joss Parsons, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s salvage manager, said the situation was urgent and efforts were currently focussed on dealing with the pollution.

A representative from MV Tycoon’s operator Singapore-based Skyline Navigation is expected to arrive on the island today, as well as an insurance assessor.

The authorities have given them until this afternoon to detail plans of how they will deal with the grounded ship.

Experts warned that the spill was a potential disaster for the ecologically important area, with crabs, birds and coral all threatened.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said rough seas preventing it salvaging the vessel or stopping more oil being spilt for at least 24 hours.

The 15-strong crew abandoned the ship on Sunday after it broke its moorings in the island's only port, next to the township.

John Richardson, commander of Christmas Island's Volunteer Marine Rescue, said 20 to 60 tonnes of pollutants had leached into the sea.

"The current situation is pretty awful," he said. "The ship has broken in two and has been discharging a lot of diesel and oil into Flying Fish Cove."

The MV Tycoon was half-loaded with phosphate dust from the island's mine when the loading had stopped at knock-off time on Saturday. The next day the mooring rope snapped and the crew jumped overboard into rough seas and were picked up by waiting navy vessels.

The ship contained 102 tonnes of heavy motor oil as well as 11,000 litres of lubricant, 32 tonnes of diesel and 260 tonnes of phosphate.

Conservation Council environmental scientist Nic Dunlop warned that the highly damaging heavy motor oil leaking from the ship would have a disastrous environmental impact on threatened seabirds and the coral band that rings the island.

"Only a few tonnes of heavy motor oil would have a major, disastrous impact on the environment," he said. Islanders went to the settlement's beach yesterday to try to clean up the diesel and oil from the beach and save wildlife.

Mr Richardson said they were stopped by police and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority because they were not properly equipped or trained.

Volunteers will be equipped and trained today to help with the clean-up operation.

"There is absolutely nothing we can do, apart from look on and get very angry and frustrated," Mr Richardson said.

Rhiannon Bird, a student staying on her native Christmas Island during the university break, said she got up on Sunday morning and watched the disaster unfold.

Miss Bird, 18, photographed crew members jumping for their lives.

"It was very frightening," she said. "It was pouring with rain and very windy. There is no let-up at the moment."

She and others watched the oil slick spread as birds swooped into the polluted waters.

"The ship was just bashing against the cliff. It got worse and was just spilling all this oil into the cove. There's not much we can do. It's horrible," she said.

Mr Richardson said the incident would have great commercial impact on Christmas Island because the stricken ship had damaged the only crane on the island. With only a small amount of cargo coming by air, Christmas Island relies on the port for its food and other supplies.

The damaged crane will be decommissioned and its foundations checked.

"The consequences will be dire. We could be without a port for three months," Mr Richardson said.

"I'm very angry but unfortunately I don't know who to be angry at."

Island administrator Brian Lacy said a shipping delivery scheduled for January 12 had been cancelled and a team was looking at contingency plans to supply the island by air for the next month.

Mr Richardson said a tug being sent from Singapore could take up two days to reach Christmas Island.

An AMSA spokeswoman said two officers had been sent to the island to assess the damage, but the authority did not know yesterday how the MV Tycoon would be removed.

The Greens called for an inquiry into the accident and oil spill, questioning why the ship was left on moorings at the loading dock when a strong swell was forecast.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said there was little hope of remediation.

"Given the nature of the conditions it is unlikely that the heavy bunker oil, diesel and phosphate currently flowing into the marine environment will be contained or cleaned up," she said.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said it was "business as usual" for the island's detention centre, and it was too early to know if the damage to the dock would affect the supply of fresh food.

Christmas Island Tourism Association president Lisa Preston said the island's tourism industry could be crippled as the main swimming area had been polluted.