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Is a harbor for tourism or trade?

Tuesday's oil leak in Australia slows down cafes and boat tours. Opera House performance cut short.

There are few cities in the world as distinguished by their harbor vistas as this one. The spinnaker-white roof of Sydney's Opera House at the water's edge is Australia's sine qua non.

That's why an oil spill in the Emerald City's harbor - albeit a relatively small one - caused such consternation here this week.

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The accidental release of oil anywhere raises environmental concerns. But as Sydney's waterfront has developed into one of the nation's premier tourist attractions, this petroleum stain has ignited a debate over the value of the harbor as a tourist asset and its use as traditional industrial port. Indeed, it's a challenge faced by a growing number of coastal cities worldwide.

On Tuesday evening, Sydney residents found their beloved harbor covered in a seven-mile-long slick of oil. An Italian tanker, the Laura D'Amato, had leaked 80,000 liters of oil (equal to several backyard swimming pools) into a glittering cove surrounded by trees and upscale apartment blocks.

The overpowering smell of the oil fumes forced an early end to "La Boheme" at the Opera House, which sits on the harbor foreshore. Owners of restaurants, outdoor cafes, and tour boats reported a drop in business on the day following the spill, saying customers were repelled by the odor.

"Right now, there is an unworkable clash between recreational and industrial uses of the harbor," says Jeff Angel, the director of the Total Environment Centre in Sydney. "One of the reasons for cleaning up the harbor in the first place was to make it more attractive to tourists. Events like this oil spill only set back the cause."

Measures for next time

But calls to ban tankers permanently, or at least during the Summer Olympics, which Sydney will host next year, were discarded. "Oil has been imported through Sydney Harbor for about 100 years," New South Wales Premier Bob Carr told reporters. "Any idea that we take this out of Sydney Harbor ... is rejected."

A proposal is being considered, however, that would require all ships unloading oil in the harbor to deploy protective antispill booms - barriers to prevent the spread of any oil.

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Tourism is now Australia's biggest earner of export dollars, accounting for 7.4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Sixty percent of the estimated 4.6 million tourists last year visited Sydney.

Katie Lahey, chief of the State Chamber of Commerce, which represents much of the city's business interests, argues that part of the harbor's attraction for tourists is that it retains the bustle of a cargo center.

"This activity on the harbor gives it a very special flavor," says Ms. Lahey. "We believe it's very important to maintain that aspect of harbor life because it adds to the excitement of Sydney as a great trading and commercial center."

In the 1998-99 fiscal year, the Sydney Ports Corp. recorded 1,092 commercial vessel movements, carrying 20 million tons of cargo, in the harbor. Together with the nearby Botany Bay - a grittier inlet to the southeast of central Sydney - the harbor contributed $1.5 billion and 16,000 jobs to the regional economy last year.

Mr. Angel supports some industry, mainly cargo deliveries, within Sydney Harbor but objects to the presence of places like the Shell oil terminal, where the Laura D'Amato was berthed. "Except for the terminal, we have got the balance about right," he says.

In the past 25 years, the quality of the water in the harbor, and the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers that feed into it, has improved dramatically. It is now common to find Sydneysiders fishing off rocks in the inner stretches of the waterway. The Rocks, a cluster of restaurants and shops in refurbished buildings, and the relatively new Darling Harbor shopping complex are major tourist draws. The glistening harbor was a major selling point for the city in 1993 when it won the rights to next year's Olympics.

Transition to recreational use

Michael Rolfe, chairman of the Sydney Harbor and Foreshores Committee, says the harbor is now a mainly recreational area, dotted with small pockets of national park. "Waterside industry tends to be noisy and operates at odd hours," he says, referring to the clanking of cranes of crashing of containers that occurs on the wharves at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. "That can create tensions between industry and the newer [residential] arrivals."

For the longtime residents of neighborhoods like Balmain and Woolloomooloo, the all-hours bustle is a comforting reminder of their working-class roots. In the upscale areas of the North Shore and the eastern suburbs, the cargo ships are more likely viewed as clutter on a harbor better used for mooring the 5,000-plus private yachts and motor cruisers.

Lahey of the State Chamber of Commerce says the commercial and recreational uses of the harbor have become blurred. Cruise ships alone - like the QEII, which frequently berths in Sydney Harbor - bring 100,000 visitors to the city each year.

Similar debates over the dual uses of ports have erupted in recent years after oil spills in San Francisco Bay; Galveston, Texas; and Tampa Bay in Florida. Some of those cities have benefited from the passage of the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill) that spells out spill prevention measures and what must be done to clean up a spill. Major oil companies chipped in nearly $1 billion to form the Marine Spill Response Corporation.

So far, there has been relatively little environmental impact from the spill in Sydney, which authorities moved quickly to contain. Most of the oil was contained behind booms on the night of the spill, and much of the oil has evaporated.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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