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Thursday, 26 May 1983
Page: 1090

Mr CONNOLLY(10.44) —The Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Bill was originally introduced by the previous Government but, with the bringing on of the election, it was not passed through the Parliament and consequently has been introduced by our successors. The Bill repeals and replaces the 1981 Protection of the Sea (Discharge of Oil from Ships ) Act and gives effect to the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, as modified by the 1978 protocol, which is known as MARPOL.

The new international convention and its protocol offers considerable advantages to the 1954 OILPOL convention which had previously been the international criterion for controlling this type of pollution. The advantages which are particularly worth noting are that the time which has passed since 1954, some 20 years or more, provides very much improved technical operational requirements for ships at sea. The Convention further widens the application of anti-pollution laws to cover noxious liquid substances carried in bulk, while introducing improved oil pollution provisions. It also provides the basis for future legislation to deal with harmful packaged substances, sewage and garbage. In addition, protection of the Great Barrier Reef is included in the MARPOL Convention and is extended to both oil and noxious liquid substances. As the Opposition spokesman for the environment, my support is naturally taken for granted, I presume, in relation to this Bill. The Opposition, like the Government, is considerably concerned about the damage which oil spillages can do to the marine environment of Australia.

It is worth noting that the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation presented a report in 1978 entitled 'Oil Spills-Prevention and Control of Oil Pollution in the Marine Environment'. In that report, the Senate committee noted that ship generated spills were estimated as contributing 35 per cent of the total input of oil into the ocean. These included minor accidental spills occurring during loading and unloading at docks; major accidents such as the Amoco Cadiz, and the other serious accident caused by the Torrey Canyon spills; and, further, deliberate spills which were usually a result of tank cleaning at sea. Anyone who has had the experience of living in the area of the Mediterranean, in particular the eastern Mediterranean, would appreciate the severe pollution which this has caused, especially on the beaches of the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean Sea.

More recently, we have seen the critical situation caused in the Arabian Gulf as a result of the Iran-Iraq war and the destruction of oil rigs which has caused significant pollution in that area. This has been most damaging to all forms of marine life, and it is very regrettable that so little appears to have been successfully achieved in the control of the flow of oil because of the warlike situation in that area. I would like to put on record that I put out a release during that period calling upon the Australian Government to use its endeavours to try to have a ceasefire established between Iran and Iraq for the purpose of closing off the oil wells so that a continuation of the oil spill could be prevented. I think it is important to keep a close watch on the reality of the situation; namely, that the marine environment belongs to the world at large. Australia, therefore, has as much right as any other nation to take a leading role in the prevention of oil spillages and the control of other problems of the environment in that regard. It is of concern to me that the Government did not take up the opportunity which was offered by the major oil spillage in the Iran Gulf to take a world leading role at that time.

In addition to these observations, it is worth noting that the Senate committee also found that it was possible that most of the oil spilt in the sea originated from a large number of small spills rather than a small number of large spills, such as the Torrey Canyon and the Amoco Cadiz incidents.

The extent and degree of damage by oil will be determined by a number of factors, not least of which are the site of the oil spill, the condition of surface currents and the sea at the time of the spill, the volume of oil which has been spilled, the physical and chemical properties of that oil, the method of clean-up adopted and, of course, a number of other variables. However, the Committee concluded that there is presently no effective means of evaluating these factors to enable soundly based counter measures to be taken in the event of a major spill. This is why preventative measures, such as strict laws and considerable fines for breaking those laws, must be the basis for legislation. These are taken account of in this Bill. Putting it quite simply, prevention is undoubtedly better than cure. It is worth noting that once an oil spill occurs, it is usually too late to save the communities of plants and wildlife which have been affected. The Torrey Canyon incident in the English Channel demonstrated quite clearly the massive loss of life, especially bird life, as well as crustaceans and fish, which took place as a result of that massive flow of oil into the Channel.

The effects of oil on marine ecosystems are extremely serious. For example, there is the difficulty created by direct coating which leads to suffocation. Oil is toxic and when absorbed it will cause death. In addition, there is the problem of habitation for marine life being severely damaged or often lost. Furthermore, there is the accumulation of hydrocarbons which cause behavioural response differences in marine life. The effects of oil in particular go beyond the obvious visual coating of sea birds and fish. Thus, any suspension of fine oil droplets can be expected to harm underwater animals and plant life most seriously, and these otherwise are only slightly affected by floating oil.

Recent findings indicate that oil spills may be having detrimental effects on the deep sea environment, as deep as 200 metres. This is a matter for concern, because one phenomenon associated with high productivity in coastal waters, especially for fishing, namely, the upwelling of nutrient rich water, is dependent upon conditions in the adjacent deep sea environment, and this could have serious effects on future fish populations. Another serious problem with oil spills is that usually non-biodegradable detergents have been used to break up the slick. But these detergents also have a considerable toxic effect of their own on the marine ecosystem. The gravity of oil spills in Australian waters, therefore, cannot be over-estimated. In areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, the home of unique coral formations and organisms, bird life and fish, the environmental costs of damage are incalculable. It is thus a matter of some concern that under clauses 9 and 10 of the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Bill which we are debating, discharges are only prohibited inside the 50 nautical miles distance of the nearest land. In terms of the Bill, the nearest land, among other things, includes the Great Barrier Reef. I recognise that this is in accordance with the MARPOL convention and that any change, perhaps extending it, for example, to the 200 nautical mile zone on the basis of the Law of the Sea Convention's economic zone, would require considerable international debate. Under the previous Government this was being given consideration by the Department of Home Affairs and Environment, but we have not been advised whether the present Government intends to examine this matter further because it is worthy of consideration, particularly in the context of the next international convention discussions. In conclusion, the Opposition expresses its commitment to the complete elimination of intentional pollution of the marine environment and the minimisation of accidental discharges of such substances. We therefore support these Bills as recognising their ultimate objectives.