Image: Oil slick on Australian beach
Dave Hunt  /  EPA file
Warana Beach on Queensland's Sunshine Coast was among the areas hit by the oil spill.
updated 3/16/2009 11:22:31 AM ET 2009-03-16T15:22:31

The Australian government sent a navy mine hunting ship to search Monday for hundreds of tons of chemicals lost overboard during a mishap that also blackened miles of beaches with fuel oil.

Authorities said they have scraped the slick off of more than half of the affected beaches just north of the Queensland state capital Brisbane, five days after Wednesday's spill from the freighter Pacific Adventurer.

Authorities declared a disaster zone Friday along 37 miles of some of Australia's most popular beaches, after it became clear the spill was much worse than it was initially thought.

The spill happened when 31 containers lashed to the ship's deck broke free during a storm and fell overboard, ripping a hole in a fuel tank as they pitched into the sea.

Each of the containers held some 22 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used as fertilizer that can also be explosive if mixed with diesel and detonated.

Authorities say ammonium nitrate dilutes easily in water and that at worst the spilled containers could cause an algal bloom. Still, they should be located and recovered as soon as possible, Environment Minister Peter Garrett said.

"We will deploy a Royal Australian Navy mine hunter vessel to search for (the) 31 fertilizer containers that were lost from the Pacific Adventurer during topical Cyclone Hamish on 11 March," Garrett told Parliament on Monday.

Captain's passport is seized
Queensland Deputy Premier Paul Lucas said Sunday an estimated 66,000 gallons of oil spilled from the ship. Britain's Swire Shipping Ltd., the Hong Kong-registered ship's owner, has not publicly confirmed the amount.

Maritime Safety Queensland said authorities served the captain of the Pacific Adventurer legal papers on Sunday ordering him to remain on the ship until the investigation is complete. The captain's passport was handed to the authorities pending an investigation.

Queensland officials have threatened Swire with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. Under Australian law, the company faces fines of up to 2 million Australian dollars ($1.3 million) and could be liable for up to AU$250 million ($160 million) more in penalties for causing environmental damage.

Swire says it is cooperating with authorities. The company has said it regretted the incident and the company and its insurers were talking with the government about cleanup costs.

Hundreds of workers toiled through the weekend to scoop up black, sludgy sand on Moreton and Bribie islands just north of the state capital of Brisbane and along the Sunshine Coast. More than half of the affected coastline was oil-free, Lucas said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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