There are fears whales, dolphins and other marine life could be hurt as debris from continues to wash up on beaches north of Newcastle with questions being raised over how a Liberian-registered ship lost more than 80 containers in rough seas.
Locals have collected dozens of bags of plastic material, jars, packaged food, clocks, nappies and sanitary items from 83 containers that fell off a cargo ship last Thursday night. About 30 more were moved or damaged.
The 50,000 tonne YM Efficiency was making its way from Taiwan to Sydney when it was hit by heavy swells about 30 kilometres off the coast.
Port Stephens EcoNetwork’s Nigel Dique and about eight volunteers have already filled at least 20 large bags of debris from Zenith and Box beaches.
“There were broken clocks, bits of structural plastic material, lots of jars and food items packaged in plastic,” Dique said. “I don’t know what else was in these containers, if there was anything toxic, but certainly turtles and whales and large marine creatures think they are food and swallow the stuff.”
A further 30 volunteers – including Julie Sims from Hawks Nest – found car parts, drinks, sanitary items and other plastics strewn across Jimmys Beach.
“It goes on and on and on – it is just plastic, plastic, plastic,” Sims said.
The NSW Greens say the plastic poses a particular threat to marine life, including sea birds, whales, dolphins and turtles. It has called on the state government to fast-track the clean-up to prevent further damage.
“The NSW coastline is a very busy maritime route, we should have excellent emergency response protocols but it looks like they have either failed or are grossly inadequate,” Greens marine spokesman Justin Field said in a statement.
The NSW environment minister, Gabrielle Upton, said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Roads and Maritime Services and the state’s Environment Protection Agency were working with local councils to ensure all material was cleaned up.
The government says it will try recoup the cost of the clean-up from the ship’s owner.
The ship’s insurer has employed local company Varley to put skip bins out for residents to dispose collected rubbish and use a helicopter to find the debris floating at sea, local MP Kate Washington said.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating the incident, but Dean Summers from the International Transport Workers’ Federation told ABC news there were questions over how the containers were loaded and whether they were secured properly.
“Crews are being encouraged, forced or paid extra to do the wharfie’s work, that is to lash containers, and we just wonder if this is a component of this incident,” Summers said.
Angus Mitchell from NSW Roads and Maritime Services said that while incidents of containers being lost overboard were not uncommon, it was quite rare for it to happen so close to the coast.
“We have had adverse weather conditions over the last 24 hours. At this stage it looks like it’s bad weather and the ship has rolled heavily and it has caused these containers to come off.”
The Bureau of Meteorology issued warnings for hazardous surf on Sunday as a powerful winter swell hit the NSW coast.
The ship’s owner, Yang Ming Marine Transport Corporation, is coordinating the search for containers and a spokeswoman said there were no dangerous goods or contaminants inside.
“There is no security concern about the condition of the vessel,” she said.