An oil spill in eastern Australia has forced officials to declare a 60 kilometer stretch of the Queensland coast a disaster zone amid warnings that legal action could be taken against the operator of the cargo ship that lost its fuel in stormy seas.
Australian authorities originally said about 30 tons of oil were lost when 31 containers of fertilizer slipped from the Hong Kong-flagged "Pacific Adventurer" ship and punctured fuel tanks in the hull as the ship was battered in cyclone-stirred waters.
Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said Friday the spill was larger than had been reported but did not say exactly how much oil was shed.
The authorities have declared large stretches of normally white-sand beaches along the popular surf region of the Sunshine Coast a disaster zone, as well as Moreton and Bribie islands, which are national parks.
At the beach resort of Coolum, north of the Queensland state capital of Brisbane, dark brown waves rolled ashore instead of the usual whitecaps and aqua waters of the Coral Sea.
Anna Bligh says the causes of this environmental disaster will be thoroughly examined.
"This will be the subject of a full investigation. If there is any evidence that any government agency could have or should have done better, we will certainly be taking all relevant action to address that," said Bligh. "At this stage my priority is to have teams of people out there cleaning this mess up to protect wildlife in what may well be the worst environmental disaster that Queensland or the south-east of our State has faced."
Bligh says the ship's operators would be held liable for the costs of the massive cleanup operation.
The lost 31 containers that held hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer have not been found.
The ship was on its way to Indonesia to deliver its shipment when the accident occurred.
Its owner, Hong Kong-based "Swire," may face fines of up to $1 million if found guilty of environmental breaches.
Conservationists have warned that oil could be washed up for weeks to come along Queensland's popular coastline. Hundreds of people are involved in the clean-up and are trying to stop rivers from being contaminated.
The Queensland government has defended its response to the disaster thus far amid accusations that it failed to act quickly enough.