By Wilson da Silva
SYDNEY – An ecological disaster along Australia’s western coast is likely to be avoided after the country’s worst oil slick began drifting out to sea, authorities said on Monday.
The Greek oil tanker Kirki, which spewed 12,000 tonnes into the ocean and created a 25-km (15-mile) slick after it broke up in heavy seas early on Sunday, was being towed to smoother waters where its remaining 68,000 tonne cargo could be transferred.
Ocean currents were slowly moving the slick away from the coast and an environmental and economic catastrophe appeared to be avoidable, Rodney Hutchison of Canberra’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre said.
The slick is about 40 km (23 miles) off Cervantes, a fishing town 170 km (106 miles) north of Perth. The Kirkihas been towed some 110 km (68 miles) from the coast.
The ship’s cargo of light crude would not create the thick black deposits created by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which devastated birds and other wildlife in Alaska in 1989, Hutchison said. The Exxon Valdez accident spilled 40,000 tonnes into Prince William Sound.
If the slick continues drifting out to sea, it is likely to disperse over the next few days, he said.
An environmental catastrophe had likely been averted and plans to spray the slick with dispersants had been dropped, Western Australian state environment minister Bob Pearce said in a radio interview.
The tanker had radioed for help early on Sunday. Rescuers found the ship listing badly, its front section shorn off, three forward holds breached, and the bow engulfed in flames and sooty black smoke.
The 37 crew members were winched off by helicopters in 25-knot winds and five-metre (16-foot) swells, which subsided by Monday morning. The fire was extinguished by heavy seas breaking over the deck.
The cause of the fire and the bow’s break-up was unknown. Though the Kirki has taken water, authorities say its remaining eight holds are intact and the tanker appears salvageable.
Newspapers quoted tanker captain Eleftherios Efstathopoulos as saying the normally empty ballast tanks on one side of the ship ruptured and took in water late on Saturday. The crew fought to pump out the water, but the ballast became so heavy the bow tore from the ship, newspapers said.
A spokesman for ship owners Mayamar Marine Enterprises SA of Piraeus said by telephone from Fremantle that the company hoped to unload the remaining crude and save the ship, which has a deadweight tonnage of 97,083.
The ship had been chartered by British Petroleum Co Plc and was delivering a cargo of light crude from Jebel Dhanna in Saudi Arabia to a refinery in Kwinana, south of Perth. The spill had threatened valuable crayfish areas near the coast.
If the slick stays out to sea it will likely dissipate in a few days and eventually wash up on the coast in the form of tar balls, said Peter Hunnam of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Sydney.
“But there are seabird colonies in nearby islands, and the birds will be feeding offshore,” he said. “If it reached land in the next couple of days, it would be catastrophic.”
The spill dwarfs a major accident off Western Australia in February when the Japanese bulk carrier Sanko Harvest ran aground, spilling 750 tonnes of oil and fertiliser into the sea.