Beached as…why we need action to mandate pilots on cargo ships

The television footage of the Shen Neng 1 wedged on the Douglas Shoal near Rockhampton highlights, again, the obvious slackness of the Queensland Government towards ships travelling near environmentally sensitive parts of Queensland’s coastline and an apparent lack of care about the potential damage accidents could cause to the Great Barrier Reef. And too the 60,000 Queenslanders whose jobs depend on Reef tourism.

Usually, the Queensland Government’s response to incidents like this is predictable and follows a simple three-step pattern – the Premier and her Ministers appear on television, talking tough and saying things like ‘no stone will be left unturned’ and those responsible will ‘have the book thrown at them’, followed by a policy or political diversion of some sort and finally an apparent strategy to make sure nothing actually changes in policy terms.

Lest you think this a cynical view lets take a wander back in time to twelve months ago when the Pacific Adventurer oil spill polluted Moreton Island.

You remember that one – container ship heads north from NSW towards a tropical cyclone and surprise, surprise encounters heavy seas. Now I will confess, my nautical experience is limited but I’m pretty sure that the closer you get to a tropical cyclone the heavier you should expect the seas will be. But I’m not a ship’s Captain…

The storm caused the Pacific Adventurer to loose containers over the side of the vessel rupturing a fuel tank and spilling so much oil that around 18km of Moreton Island’s coastline was drenched with thick back muck.

The initial Queensland Labor Government response, demonstrated an unparalleled ability to turn a catastrophe into a disaster, by massively under-resourcing the clean up effort. It was hard to imagine how they thought they could get away with this, there was a State election underway and clearly twelve hard-working blokes with shovels weren’t going to get the job done in time. The painstaking cleanup clearly required far more grunt than the Government was prepared to deliver.

To add insult to injury, the Queensland government allowed the Pacific Adventurer to be towed into port in Hamilton on the Brisbane River while it was still clearly leaking oil. At first, the State Government refused to acknowledge to the media this was occurring and clearly intended to take no action but after Bob Brown and I provided aerial photographs there was finally some embarrassed action to stop further pollution of the Brisbane River.

But the Queensland Government didn’t let this incident faze them – they immediately implemented their three-step strategy – Premier Anna Bligh appeared on television claiming that Swire Shipping would be paying for the total cost of the clean up effort. No more than Queenslanders should expect etc. Many months later and once the heat had gone out of the issue in the media Swire agreed to fund part of the cost of the cleanup with Queensland’s taxpayers funding the shortfall. Step two was a no-brainer for the Labor Party, with an election due within two weeks it was easy to divert attention away from the environmental disaster with a focus on the economy and job creation issues (a compliant Liberal National Party Opposition assisted here). And of course, step three, the Labor Government made sure that there were virtually no changes to policy or procedures following the incident – certainly they were not interested in the Greens’ suggestion for pilots to be aboard these ships as they travel along the Queensland coast and perilously near the Great Barrier Reef.

And now the Shen Neng 1 is wedged on the Douglas Shoal in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Hundreds of ships travel north and south along Queenland’s coastline every week – last time I flew into Bowen I counted 30 ships from the plane window. The surprising thing about the Shen Neng 1’s accident isn’t that it has happened in the GBR Marine Park but rather that something like this hasn’t happened sooner. After all, incidents like the Pacific Adventurer debacle surely provided adequate warning to decision makers that all was not well or safe within this industry.

What is needed here isn’t the usual response from the Queensland State Government – this is of no use in the long-term. What is needed is a genuine commitment to putting in place safeguards to ensure this kind of incident cannot so easily happen again. This means the Greens’ plan for mandatory pilots must be progressed with immediately effect.

Sadly, the Queensland Government has already implemented stages 1 and 2 of its business as usual approach – we’ve already had the tough talk, even arrests and now we’ve also had the diversion with a proposals for a Daylight Saving for South-East Queensland referendum. This doesn’t suggest there will be sensible policy action but we can still hope. The ball is now in the Queensland Government’s court – there can surely not now be any excuse not to mandate the inclusion of pilots on all vessels like the Shen Neng 1.

This policy change will only come about if the Queensland Government feels genuine community pressure to make this change and the only practical way for this to occur is for the broader environment movement to take up this policy challenge. I have already received a number of emails from major Australian environment groups telling me how terrible the incident was but providing no practical proposals to stop this from happening again. We need to do much, much better here. The environment movement needs to be able to think about protections for the most environmentally precious parts of Australia that goes beyond just creating parks – this incident happened in an area that was already designated as a marine park. Its time for less hand wringing and some real action and the most simple and straightforward action here is to mandate the inclusion of pilots on all vessels like the Shen Neng 1 coal carrier.