Clean up efforts continue one year after YM Efficiency containers overboard incident off Port Stephens

NO STEPPING BACK: Pamela Smith with rubbish collected from Fingal Beach on the first weekend in June one year after the YM Efficiency spill. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts
NO STEPPING BACK: Pamela Smith with rubbish collected from Fingal Beach on the first weekend in June one year after the YM Efficiency spill. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

One year after the YM Efficiency containers overboard incident residents are still collecting plastic cups and containers from along the Port's beaches.

But if there is one silver lining to have come from the incident, it is the community that it has created.

"People really do care," Fingal Bay resident Pamela Smith said. "When it first happened, it was amazing to see how much people were prepared to stand up and help [clean up efforts].

"I was given bags, gloves, time, labour. I even had a man donate his truck for the rubbish.

"Now, a year later, I see people on the beach almost every day picking up rubbish, we talk, kids get involved. That has been the silver lining."

Ms Smith was one of the first residents to mobilise after 81 containers went overboard the YM Efficiency container ship in the early hours of June 1, 2018.

The container ship was transporting goods from Taiwan to Australia when it was caught in bad weather.

According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau's investigation into the incident, which is ongoing, the ship was about 16 nautical miles east-south-east of Newcastle when it experienced a period of quick, heavy rolling for about 60 to 90 seconds.

It was during this time that the ship, carrying a total of 2252 containers, lost 81 overboard. A further 62 were damaged.

Four containers were later found broken up in the water and along the coastline.

This resulted in the contents of the containers spilling into the ocean and to wash up along coastline.

Pamela Smith with rubbish she collected from Fingal Bay beach on the first weekend in June - one year after the YM Efficiency container overboard incident. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Pamela Smith with rubbish she collected from Fingal Bay beach on the first weekend in June - one year after the YM Efficiency container overboard incident. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Port residents woke on June 1 to find plastic cups used by fast food restaurants, plastic automobile parts, yoga mats, food packets and aluminium cans and other plastic items littering their beaches.

Ms Smith put a call out on Facebook for residents to help her clean up beaches around Fingal Bay - one of the spots hardest hit by the initial debris wash up.

"Looking at all the rubbish from the containers washed up on the beach - I didn't want to wait," Ms Smith told the Examiner at the time. "I started picking them up straight away."

But a year later, Ms Smith is still collecting the same rubbish around Fingal Bay.

"Every time I go for a walk or a kayak I'm guaranteed to find rubbish from that disaster," she said. "The plastic cups are the worst. Last Saturday I went to one of my favourite little beaches.

"There were cups everywhere. I just sat down and cried. I felt hopeless about it. This was one of the remote beaches we started the clean up on a year ago.

"To see it almost how it was then a year on, it was heartbreaking."

Pamela Smith with rubbish she collected from Fingal Bay beach on the first weekend in June - one year after the YM Efficiency container overboard incident. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Pamela Smith with rubbish she collected from Fingal Bay beach on the first weekend in June - one year after the YM Efficiency container overboard incident. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

It is unknown just how many cubic metres of debris has been collected by volunteers, Roads and Maritime Services and Varley Group, the clean-up contractor appointed by the ship's insurers, from along the NSW coastline in the past year.

However, Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), who is leading the YM Efficiency clean-up response, indicated efforts would continue.

AMSA is also focused on locating the containers that went overboard and, if possible, seeing that they are recovered.

Taiwanese shipping company Yang Ming said at the time of the incident it would "take full responsibility to recover and to minimise the impact to the marine environment".

But when the company made no attempt to instigate a recovery effort, AMSA initiated a search for the containers which began in December 2018.

As of May 26, AMSA had found 62 of the lost containers, with the search continuing using Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle surveys.

"We'll continue to do what's necessary to clean up the mess and we'll continue to invoice the ship owners Yang Ming and their insurers for it," AMSA's general manager for response, Mark Morrow, said.

"And if that means court action, then we're certainly prepared to do that.

"This is a significant marine pollution incident but the ship's owners and insurers don't seem to acknowledge this - and their lack of pro-activity during the recovery process has been disappointing.

"AMSA would have liked to have seen action immediately on the broader container problem as seen in other parts of the world where owners and insurers have acted promptly to clean up their mess."

Mr Morrow said the estimated the cost of retrieving containers as a $10-$50 million operation, depending on how many could be recovered.

A spokesperson for Aus Ship, the Australian representatives of Yang Ming and insurers Britannia P & I, said Yang Ming was "committed to finding all of the containers and removing them where it is safe and practical to do so" but added: "Yang Ming believes that the real risk to the environment is attempting to lift the containers out."

Ed Korber, managing director of Subsea, and Michael Porritt, director of ROV Innovations, with one of the remotely operated underwater vehicles that will be used to locate submerged shipping containers from the YM Efficiency. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Ed Korber, managing director of Subsea, and Michael Porritt, director of ROV Innovations, with one of the remotely operated underwater vehicles that will be used to locate submerged shipping containers from the YM Efficiency. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Mr Morrow said AMSA was working with salvage experts to explore container recovery options based on the imagery captured so far by the ROUV.

"We'll keep working hard to find the remaining containers and start the recovery process as soon as possible," he said.

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