The Ocean Monarch was towed into Hobart in early November for maintenance and minor repairs. (ABC News: Scott Ross)
Tasmania’s Environment Protection Authority [EPA] is considering its “legal requirements” after the owners of an oil drilling rig moored in Hobart’s River Derwent refused access to inspect for marine pests.
The EPA director Wes Ford said salmon company Tassal has raised concerns with the EPA about potential biosecurity risks the Ocean Monarch posed.
“I’ve had a number of talks with Tassal over past few weeks … their concerns are two-fold — [that] any disease might affect salmon and whether it’s carrying any marine pests,” he said.
Tassal is Australia’s largest producer of Tasmanian-grown Atlantic salmon. (Supplied: Tassal)
The 107-metre-long, 21,000-tonne platform is positioned at the entrance of Ralphs Bay in the River Derwent, where it was supposed to remain anchored for 12 weeks.
The Environment Protection Authority [EPA] yesterday issued a new environment protection notice in respect to the Ocean Monarch.
The EPA’s website states the notice was issued on the basis “the oil rig activity may cause serious or material environmental harm, or environmental nuisance”.
In the particulars of the notice, the EPA states the grounds upon which the notice was issued: “To correct errors and omissions” in the previous environmental protection notice.
EPA considering ‘legal options’ of inspecting rig
Mr Ford said he contacted the owners of the Ocean Monarch, Diamond Offshore General, in late November to discuss the need for the EPA to undertake a visual inspection of the hull, to check for the presence of marine pests.
Wes Ford has failed to get the owners of the Ocean Monarch to comply with the EPA. (ABC News: Emily Bryan)
“I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half weeks working with the company, engaging with them around getting approval for the EPA to undertake an inspection,” he said.
Earlier on Tuesday Mr Ford released a statement with a timeline of events:
- The EPA engaged appropriately qualified contractors to conduct the inspection and the director sought the owners’ approval for them to access the hull on December 18-19
- On December 13, the owners advised Mr Ford that the company was unable to provide access and would not approve the EPA’s visual inspection in December
- On December 14, Mr Ford wrote to the company and directed them to undertake the visual inspection and provide a report to the EPA within 21 days
- On December 17, the owners advised Mr Ford that they would not be able to undertake the visual inspection.”
“I’m currently looking at my legal options in relation to being able to undertake that inspection without their approval, rather than with their approval,” he said.
“This is quite complex for work health and safety requirements and also international shipping law — trespass for example.”
Mr Ford confirmed the Ocean Monarch may leave Tasmania weeks before it was originally intended.
“[Diamond Offshore General] advised me of [their] intent to have rig leave the Derwent River river between the 2nd and 7th of January, and it was expected to leave the 31st of January,” he said.
White colonial sea squirt a concern
Mr Ford confirmed they were worried the marine pest Didemnum perlucidum, also known as the white colonial sea squirt, could be on the platform’s submerged sections.
Didemnum perlucidum, also known as the white colonial sea squirt, is an invasive marine pest. (Supplied: WA Dept Primary Industries and Regional Development)
“I think its important for us to be able to inspect the rig … because if it is carrying the marine pest then we can keep an eye on it over the next 10 years, even if it is there is no guarantee it would actually establish here,” he said.
“Colonial sea squirt has been introduced into WA, and it is an invasive species.”
The Ocean Monarch travelled from Singapore to Western Australia, and then onto Bass Strait in 2017.
“The hull of Ocean Monarch was last cleaned in Singapore in mid-2017 and it was given clearance to leave Singapore a travel to Australian waters, and it’s been in Australian waters since later in 2017,” Mr Ford said.
He said the rig was not examined before being allowed into Tasmanian waters.
The 107-metre-long Ocean Monarch drilling rig came from the east Gippsland coast to Hobart for maintenance. (ABC News: Matthew Barnes)
“The assessment that was undertaken by the EPA was based on advice provided by the company, based on their commonwealth assessment,” he said.
“Because this rig had been in Bass Strait, based on this initial advice the EPA determined that it wasn’t necessary to undertake a marine inspection before it got to the Derwent.
“It’s a very complex task and it’s not something that can be done at sea. Normally when these vessels are inspected they are taken to a place like Singapore where they have dry dock facilities, or they’re lifted out of water by a heavy lift ship.”
Criticism of EPA’s handling of the matter
Greens MP Rosalie Woodruff said she formally wrote to the EPA more than three weeks ago, concerned the rig posed a biosecurity risk.
“How can it be that scientists and members of Parliament appear to be dismissed but when Tassal snaps its fingers the EPA wakes up?” she said.
“I think people have got a right to understand why the EPA has been so inactive.”
Ms Woodruff was not impressed with the response of Diamond Offshore General.
“It’s typical of an international corporation like this that they would be cavalier, that’s even more important for a strong EPA to have strong biosecurity measures,” she said.
Philip Cocker from Environment Tasmania said it appeared the EPA was playing catch-up on the Ocean Monarch.
“It appears [the EPA] didn’t consider all the biosecurity issues seriously enough at the start, in particular the marine pest issues, he said.
“The Derwent system is already under enormous stress and we can’t afford any more pests.”
He said it could pose problems for the salmon industry.
“It would pose a threat to all manner of fishing and industrial salmon farming in the river, if it got established,” he said.
The critically endangered spotted handfish lives in the area where the Ocean Monarch has been moored. (Supplied)
Environment groups previously raised concerns about the rig’s presence in Ralphs Bay, a known habitat of the spotted handfish — a critically endangered species found only in the River Derwent.
The species’ natural breeding ground has been decimated by the invasive North Pacific Sea Star over the past two decades, and the CSIRO and University of Tasmania are working to conserve the species.
Diamond Offshore General has been contacted for comment.