A CONTRACTOR has claimed a large spill at Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal a decade ago could be why kilograms of coal is washing up on Mackay beaches.
The North Mackay man, aged in his 50s, alleges the spill happened at the shipping terminal south of Mackay around 2006, while he was contracted there.
He claims a worker fell asleep on the job, resulting in a conveyor belt malfunction which "spewed" coal into the ocean.
Asking to remain anonymous, the man said he feared speaking out publicly would end any chance of further work in the mining industry.
"It would've happened a bit before the 7X (Dalrymple Bay Terminal Expansion) project. I got out to the berth (one morning) and did the pre-start and I asked what happened to the (conveyor) belt, how come it stopped and there's s***loads of coal on it," he said.
"So, the main chute in the shiploader clogged up and old mate who was operating it had gone to sleep (around 3am). And even though they had a video going on it, before they realised he'd been asleep half an hour, an hour, two hours - who knows - someone raised the alarm that the coal was spewing off the main belt virtually going straight into the ocean."
The contractor couldn't determine exactly how much coal supposedly spilled, but said "one would imagine it'd be a minimum of 100 tonnes if not anywhere up to 1000-2000 tonnes of coal".
In response to the contractor's claims, a DBCT Management spokesman said the organisation "understands and takes its environmental obligations seriously".
"The terminal is designed, and systems and processes are in place, to avoid unlicensed discharges into the local environment," he said.
"DBCT is in compliance with its environmental obligations and meets all reporting requirements to the environmental regulator.
"DBCT Management and the terminal operator both have no record of the alleged incident communicated to the Daily Mercury."
Shiploaders used to transfer coal from DCBT's wharf conveyors into the holds of ships operate at a rate of 7200 tonnes of coal an hour, the company's website states.
The contractor believes systems have likely been put in place, or improved, at Dalrymple Bay since the alleged spill to prevent or minimise such incidents.
However, he believes minor coal spillage is inevitable at ports "and you have got to wonder whether that all ends up in the drink as well".
The claims follow environmental advocate Lance Payne finding at least 20kg of coal at East Point beach, near Mackay Harbour, over the past couple of months.
Almost 5kg was found as recently as Tuesday morning.
The Department of Environment has been investigating why coal has been found - as well as a fine black dust - assisted by samples sent in by Mr Payne. Samples were also being prepared for James Cook University and had apparently been sent to North Queensland Bulk Ports.
The Port of Hay Point comprises two separate coal export terminals: Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal (DBCT) which is leased from the State Government by DBCT Management Pty Ltd and the Hay Point Coal Terminal (HPCT), owned by BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance and operated by Hay Point Services.
North Queensland Bulk Ports directed all enquiries to DCBT, but its spokeswoman previously said systems and controls in place make coal spillage unlikely.
"The coal terminals at Hay Point take precautions to prevent coal spillage, either on land or in the ocean, as this is the commodity they handle for international customers," she said.
"Each terminal has various systems and controls in place to prevent spillage. Without scientific testing of the rocks it is not possible to say if it is coal."
However, the Department of Environment has described the substance Mr Payne found as coal.
'Spillage most likely source'
THE "most likely source" of the coal found on Mackay beaches recently "is spillage from operations", says a Mackay Conservation Group research analyst.
Despite her belief, Patricia Julien, who's been with the group for 13 years, hadn't heard of a spill which could be linked to the contractor's claim. However, she claimed coal operations at ports inevitably experience spillage, no matter the precautions.
"Over the years coal pollution has entered the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area marine environment from Hay Point via rainfall run-off from the coal stockpiles, spillage from the conveyor belt transporting coal to offshore shipping and from loading the ships," she said.
"Besides being unsightly, coal is also harmful to marine life and is not part of the local shoreline geology. It is also not the image to present to tourists."
Ms Julien said more studies should be done to determine the environmental impacts.
Echoing DBCT Management's comments, a BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance spokesman said the company takes its responsibilities seriously and all operations at Hay Point Coal Terminal are compliant.
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