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Half oil-damaged beaches cleaned; ship denies lying

ABOUT half of the white sand beaches along Australia's east coast that were blackened by an oil spill have been cleared, an official said yesterday.

Authorities declared a disaster zone along 60 kilometers of some of Australia's most popular beaches in Queensland state after they were covered in fuel oil that spilled from a cargo ship caught in rough seas on Wednesday.

Hundreds of workers toiled all weekend scooping up black, sludgy sand on Moreton and Bribie islands and along the Sunshine Coast.

By yesterday more than half of the affected coastline was oil-free although many beaches remained closed, Queensland Deputy Premier Paul Lucas said.

"The battle is far from over but the tide has very much turned in our direction," Lucas said, adding that he expected all beaches except those on Moreton Island to be fully cleared of oil within the next couple of days. How much oil leaked from the ship is not yet clear. Yesterday Lucas said that an estimated 250,000 liters of oil spilled.

Anthony Tregoning, spokesman for Britain's Swire Shipping Ltd, the Hong Kong-registered ship's owner, said the company would not be releasing any further figures on how much oil had spilled.

Queensland officials have accused the company of initially misleading the government about the size of the spill. Premier Anna Bligh said the company told the government it was much smaller, leading officials to predict there would be little environmental damage.

Swire initially said containers slipped from the ship's deck in rough seas, ripping a hole in a fuel tank and spilling more than 42,500 liters of oil.

On Friday, the company said that an inspection of the hull led it to conclude that the amount of spilled oil was "significantly more" than that but did not give a figure.

Yesterday Swire released a statement denying it lied to authorities about the size of the spill. The ship's officers had to measure the amount of leaked fuel in difficult conditions, and were at first unaware that there was a second hole leaking oil, the company said.

Queensland officials have threatened Swire with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. Under Australian law, the company faces fines of up to A$2 million (US$1.3 million) and could be liable for up to A$250 million more in penalties for environmental damage.


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