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December 21, 2005

Record penalty for Australian spill

Australia's biggest environmental penalty ever was handed down in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court yesterday.

German defendants, ship master Erhard Heinz Schuschan and shipping company Reederei Suderelbe GmbH & Co. Schiffahrts Kg (RSS) were ordered to pay more than A$ 1million (US$ 744,450) in fines, clean-up expenses, environmental projects and legal costs as well as contribute some A$28,000 (US $20,000) to Lifesaving Victoria.

Schuschan was fined A$ 20,000 (US$ 14,900).

The company must also publicize details of its offenses in a range of local, state, national and international publications.

Both parties pleaded guilty to a combined total of four charges relating to an oil spill that occurred in early 2003 and had convictions recorded against them.

The court heard that the parties were responsible for one of the state of Victoria's most significant environmental incidents in recent years when a large quantity of oil from the ship ANL Pioneer washed ashore at Woolamai and Kilcunda.

The incident occurred when the vessel was en route to Sydney and discharged 30-40,000 liters of waste oil sludge from its ballast water tanks into Bass Strait, about nine nautical miles off Phillip Island.

Victoria EPA chairman Mick Bourke said "this was a blatant disregard for the environment. The ship's master and owner were both careless in their conduct and have now paid a suitably high price."

He said it was rewarding to see such a significant financial penalty being imposed for an incident that had affected a pristine and important part of the Victorian coastline but had also had an impact on a broad sector of the Victorian community.

The clean-up was coordinated by Marine Safety Victoria under the Victorian Marine Pollution Contingency Plan, 2002. The cost of the clean-up was approximately A$ 400,000 (US$ 298,000). Combined clean up and investigation costs totalled in excess of A$590,000 (US$ 440,000).

Bourke said investigation of the incident had been "an all-consuming journey in which we coordinated an investigation, which required specialist oil fingerprinting techniques from our labs and the assistance of federal and international agencies including maritime authorities in three different countries."

The court heard the first sight of oil came from a bus driver on February 28, 2003 and was subsequently reported to the Bass Coast Shire Council--at that stage the oil slick extended as far as the eye could see in both directions at Woolamai Surf Lifesaving Club.

Subsequent investigations determined that a thick band of black oil covered approximately 12 kilometers of coastline on Phillip Island at Woolamai and on the mainland from Kilcunda to the mouth of the Powlett River

The court heard that 60 percent of the beach was covered in small tar balls, which took more than 100 people several days to clean, in total 144 tonnes of toxic oily waste was removed. Woolamai beach was closed for a week.

"A total of 25 oiled Little Penguins were recovered during the five days after the spill, two of which died. Several other bird species, including pied cormorants, silver gulls and endangered hooded plovers, were also impacted."

Bourke said the vessel had clearly not been well maintained and was "a disaster waiting to happen."

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