From: Michael Perry, Reuters
Published June 8, 2007 12:00 AM

Beached Coal Ship Risks Australian Marine Disaster

SYDNEY -- Huge seas beached a 40,000 tonne coal ship in Australia on Friday, sparking a major rescue operation that saw all 22 crew members airlifted off the stricken vessel in gale force winds.


The stricken ship is being pounded by huge waves and authorities fear it may break up, causing a marine disaster.


Two other bulk carriers issued distress calls as waves around 10 metres (30 feet) dragged them towards the coast, but officials said one of the ships had reached deeper water and the other was being towed out to sea by a tug.


The "Pasha Bulker" had been anchored off the coal port of Newcastle on Australia's east coast awaiting entry when waves and gales swept it onto a reef and Nobbys Beach.


"It's getting absolutely belted at the moment, it's an amazing sight, the spray coming right over the top of this huge tanker," one eyewitness told local media.


Plans for tugs to pull the ship out to sea were abandoned because of the rough seas. With winds over 100 km (62 miles) per hour, two rescue helicopters airlifted 22 crew off the ship.


Waterfront unions said the crew was Filipino.


The ship is believed to be carrying more than 700 tonnes of oil and 38 tonnes of diesel, said maritime officials.


"The vessel at this stage on Nobbys Beach appears to be in the process of buckling and may break up so we're now looking at some plans to deal with any potential environmental issues," said police superintendent David Swilks.


But the seas were too wild for any preventive measures, said Chris Oxenbould, chief of the NSW Maritime authority.


"Pollution response teams are on stand by. However, weather conditions are so bad that deploying any measures to combat potential pollution is not possible at this stage."


WEATHER TO WORSEN


Environmentalists said if the ship broke up it would cause a marine disaster.


"If this ship breaks up, spilling thousands of litres of heavy fuel into the ocean, it will be a tragedy for the marine environment in the area," said Greens politician Ian Cohen.


The bulk carrier "Sea Confidence" was dragged on Friday to within about a kilometre of Stockton Beach, north of Newcastle, but with the aid of a tug was towed out to sea.


The bulk carrier "Bitis" also issued a call for help as it was dragged towards another beach near Newcastle, but managed to reach deeper water.


The storm conditions have been whipped up by the worst low pressure system off Australia's east coast in 30 years, said weather officials. Some 60,000 homes are without power and flash flooding has washed away two cars, leaving seven people missing.


"The forecast is for the weather to deteriorate with seas now at 8-10 metres and winds of around 40 knots," said Oxenbould.


Newcastle is one of Australia's largest coal export terminals but delays in loading have resulted in ships queueing some two to three km (one to two miles) offshore.


Newcastle Port authorities said there were currently 58 ships anchored offshore. The ships will supply coal to power stations in Asia, especially Japan, but also Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong.


"All other ships previously anchored off the coast waiting to enter the harbour have now proceeded well out to sea," said Oxenbould.


Port Waratah Coal Services said the Newcastle harbour has been closed and no movements of ships was expected until Monday, depending on weather conditions.


The coal loading chain at Newcastle port had ceased operations due to flooding in the nearby Hunter Valley, along the rail line and at the coal terminals. (Additional reporting by Michael Byrnes)


Source: Reuters


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