A ship carrying 3000 tonnes of explosive material used in mining blasts is floating off the Newcastle coast because the embattled chemical-maker Orica has no place to store it on land.
Maritime Union officials who boarded the vessel yesterday described conditions on the Filipino-crewed MCP Kopenhagen as the worst they had seen in years and criticised a decision by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to grant the ship permission to take on such a potentially destructive cargo.
The assistant national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, Warren Smith, said: ''This is an incredibly bad ship with a highly dangerous cargo that could potentially put the people of Newcastle at risk.''
The vessel, which is carrying 2500 bags of ammonium nitrate, was eventually allowed to be towed out of port. It will stay offshore for seven days before returning to Newcastle. Orica said the load was needed to maintain supply to Hunter Valley miners while maintenance is carried out at its ammonium nitrate plant at Koorangang Island. The site has been the scene of a series of serious mishaps, including the leaking of hexavalent chromium and ammonia over a nearby residential area.
The company was last year forced to shut down its plant and it was only reopened in February.
Orica is awaiting approval from Muswellbrook Shire Council to use the former Rosemount winery site on Rosemount Road in Denman as an ammonium nitrate storage and distribution facility that could take up to 2000 tonnes of chemical.
Shipping experts said it was unusual for ships to be used as de facto warehouses for chemicals, although products such as grain were sometimes stored this way.
A spokeswoman for Orica, Nicole Ekert, described the use of the Greek-owned ship that flies under a Maltese flag as ''not common but not uncommon either''.
She said the company had received the appropriate maritime order, from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority for a single voyage. She also confirmed the ship was carrying 3000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and would stay off the coast for seven days.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority inspected the MCP Kopenhagen last week and found several deficiencies, but a spokesman said none was serious enough to warrant the ship being detained.
However, union officials who boarded the boat said they were shocked at the condition of the ship and the crew.
Mr Smith said: ''This ship has to navigate through the port with poor equipment. You would not want this stuff washing up on the beach.''
He said the authority issued the ship's captain with notices for eight separate defects on April 26. They included faulty fire safety systems, broken navigational systems and radio, and broken sewerage.
MUA officials discovered rancid meat and rotten vegetables had been dumped overboard and that one sick crew member was taken to hospital. Mr Smith said it was the ''lowest standard FOC (flag of convenience) ship'' that union officials had seen in Newcastle in a long time.
The Filipino crew of 17 had been rationed just 300 millilitres of drinking water each a day.
The captain's paperwork showed that some members of the crew had been working non-stop since March last year.
''These are third-world conditions on a third-world ship and Orica as a multibillion-dollar company should think more about the community and about safety because this is outrageous.''
Under seafarers requirements of the International Transport Workers' Federation, crew members must be paid a minimum $US1675 a month. An MUA official who boarded the boat, Glen Williams, said crew members were being paid $US1015.