On March 11, a 185-metre container ship, the Pacific Adventurer was en route from Newcastle to Indonesia via Brisbane when it lost 31 containers in heavy seas about seven nautical miles east of Cape Moreton.
The ship was sailing into the southern edge of the category five Cyclone Hamish and navigating through swells of up to nine metres. The falling containers pierced the ship's hull, resulting in the loss of heavy fuel oil.
At first, it was claimed by the Pacific Adventurer's owners that only 20 to 30 tonnes of oil had been lost, but it is now clear that around 230 tonnes of oil spilled into the ocean.
Tides dumped significant quantities of oil onto the coastline stretching 60 km from just north of the Maroochy River on the Sunshine Coast to the full length of Moreton Island.
Moreton, and Bribie Island to its north, is a national park, home to a range of sea birds and creatures, including turtles, dolphins and pelicans.
The Australian Conservation Foundation's Don Henry described the northern tip of Moreton Island as an "oily wasteland".
"This area is home to bottlenose dolphins, dugongs and a treasure trove of other marine species:, he said on March 13. "Turtles lay their eggs in the sand of these beaches."
Professor Ravi Naidu — managing director of the Co-operative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation Of the Environment — was quoted by the Australian Science Media Centre on March 12 as saying that the incident could potentially have a very significant impact on the aquatic ecosystem.
"The problem … is that the oil spill will not disappear quickly", said Naidu. "It will be present in the aquatic environment for a while. All it will do is disperse, and after dispersing the oil and the lubricant can be there not just for months, but for years unless we actively remediate it. Remediation and management of the oil spill can cost millions of dollars."
These concerns have been echoed by the local fishing industry. The Queensland Seafood Industry Association (QSIA) told ABC Online on March 16 that the oil slick and lost containers, which contain ammonium nitrate, were crippling the local fishing industry.
QSIA spokesperson Neil Green said that the Environment Protection Authority had not acted quickly enough to locate the 31 containers. "If they went and did their homework on what this fertiliser can do out there … they would be having a far bigger response and doing something about it", he said.
The threat posed by the ammonium nitrate was also stressed by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). The union has been calling for regulation of volatile cargoes such as ammonium nitrate on the Australian coast and pristine waterways.
"It shouldn't be left to the lowest possible international shipper using the cheapest international crews", said MUA assistant national secretary Mick Doleman on March 11.
"These containers pose a serious and immediate danger to navigation as well as presenting a major environmental catastrophe."
Captain John Watkinson of Maritime Safety Queensland told ABC Online on March 12 that all 31 containers were 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 spill could not have occurred at a worse time for the state ALP government of Anna Bligh. In the middle of a state election campaign, dedicated to supporting the state's coal industry and completing the Mary River Dam at Traveston, the Labor Party's environment credentials were already in tatters before the oil spill occurred.
Criticism of the government's slow response to the disaster was met with poor excuses. "[The ship's owners] originally told us 20 to 30 tonnes", deputy premier Paul Lucas said on March 14. "It is now apparent it was about 230 tonnes."
Henry noted the real significance of the disaster. "For goodness sake", he said, "the government must get serious about tackling climate change. This ship was hit by the tail end of a category five cyclone. Just as Victoria will experience dramatically increased days of extreme bushfire weather, the science is telling us Queensland will cop more destructive cyclones unless we make big cuts to greenhouse pollution."