A Northern Territory-based conservation organisation has voiced its concern over the failed prosecution of the owners and masters of a cargo ship said to have been responsible for a major oil spill in Darwin Harbour.
On Friday, Local Court Judge John Neill dismissed the case on procedural grounds due to what activists say were legal shortcomings in the NT Marine Pollution Act and Regulations which were in force at the time of the incident.
“In 2016 our precious harbour, our coastal backyard, suffered from a devastating oil spill that spread across 30km of the coast. [The] failed prosecution means no one is being held accountable for this terrible toxic mess,” said Adele Pedder from the organisation Keep Top End Coasts Healthy.
Another blow to harbour and wildlife
“Darwin Harbour is suffering from the impacts of industrial development, mangrove destruction and toxic pollution. This is yet another blow to the health of our harbour and wildlife.”
The NT Department of Environment stated that the 30km spill impacted mangroves, intertidal mudflats and coastal zones, which provide habitat for species like turtles, spawning fish, mud crabs and the critically endangered eastern curlew.
Pedder said procedural issues meant that a conviction could not be brought against the owners of the Vietnamese-registered cargo ship Antung, who had been charged with offences relating to the spill.
Act’s changes better for future actions
However, she noted that changes subsequently made to the Marine Pollution Legislation Amendment Act will better enable the NT to pursue justice for marine pollution caused by ships in future cases.
“Legal protection for our marine and coastal environments is essential to ensure the owners of ships and all operators on the harbour act with respect and are held to account. This is particularly important in Darwin where we are seeing significant increases in industrial activity and associated shipping,” Pedder said.
Pedder said she hoped lessons were learned by NT authorities, who have been criticised for their slow reaction to the spill.
Insufficient time under old laws
According to a press statement released by the Australian Marine Conservation Society, the provisions of NT Marine Pollution Act in force at the time of the Darwin oil spill required legal proceedings to commence within two years of the offence occurring, or within two years of the offence coming to the knowledge of the relevant department.
“Two years does not allow sufficient time to properly complete investigations and prepare a legal case due to the complex nature of international shipping. The new Marine Pollution Legislation Amendment Act 2019 removes any time limit for commencing proceedings,” the statement said.
Similarly, under the provisions of the old Act, once a foreign-owned vessel had left NT waters it is not possible to serve documents required for legal proceedings on the agent. The new Marine Pollution Legislation Amendment Act 2019 facilitates the service of documents and aims to avoid this problem.