Ship loses 31 chemical containers off Australia

SYDNEY Wed Mar 11, 2009 7:42pm EDT

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - A ship carrying 60 containers of ammonium nitrate, used for making fertilizer and explosives, lost an estimated 31 containers overboard on Wednesday and is leaking fuel in rough seas off Australia's northeast coast.

Marine experts fear if the missing containers leak, the spill could create algae blooms which would choke marine life in Moreton Bay near the city of Brisbane.

The Pacific Adventurer was buffeted by rough seas, whipped up by a tropical cyclone, when the containers broke loose on Wednesday morning, said maritime authorities.

One container pierced the hull, causing a fuel leak.

"The ship had about 60 containers onboard that contained ammonium nitrate, they were all on deck. Reports are that we have lost about 31 of them," said Captain John Watkinson, general manager of Maritime Safety Queensland.

"We've spoken to the ship's captain and he was a bit anxious with his condition out there, with the sea, which has been whipped up by Cyclone Hamish. It's a pretty nasty situation."

Aircraft are searching for the missing containers.

"The ship's master indicated that he thought the containers had sunk. The other (possibility) is that they're still floating around out there," said Watkinson.

Three tons of ammonium nitrate spilled on the ship's deck when the containers broke loose.

If the missing containers leak, the spill could create algae blooms, which would choke life on the Moreton Bay marine bed, said James Smith, a water quality expert at the Queensland University of Technology.

"The risk of the impact (of the ammonium nitrate) is nitrification, which is algae blooms," Smith told local media. "Ammonium nitrate is very soluble, so once it gets wet, it will dissolve fairly quickly."

(Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Valerie Lee)

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