From: The Australian
December 26, 2009 12:00AM
THE navy's Armidale class patrol boats were put to sea with design defects, missing operating procedures and inadequate training that caused an accident in which four sailors were almost killed.
A secret report into the gassing of the crew aboard HMAS Maitland has raised more questions about the 16-strong fleet of Armidale patrol boats, twice recalled to port for emergency repairs since they were commissioned in 2005.
The $28 million boats, dubbed "Armifail" by frustrated sailors, have been dogged by problems including fuel contamination, engine trouble, blocked toilets, lack of personal storage, inadequate lighting and overcrowding.
Unusually for military vessels, the sleek 56m, aluminium-hulled Armidales were designed and constructed by West Australian-based Austal Ships to meet commercially based classification standards, and later modified to meet navy regulations.
Four sailors on training exercises aboard the Maitland off Darwin in August 2006 were gassed with hydrogen sulphide, commonly known as rotten egg gas, and possibly carbon monoxide, after a leak in the ship's sewerage system.
A secret report into the accident, obtained by The Weekend Australian, found effluent had not been properly treated aboard the ship and that 615 litres of sewage was stored in holding tanks for three days because there was no equipment to take the discharge in port.
This caused a build-up of the toxic gases, which leaked into the 21-crew ship's spare accommodation area -- normally used to hold rescued asylum-seekers -- after a valve failed when the sewage was being pumped out at sea.
The investigation found the location of air vents and sewage discharge lines did not meet specifications despite the ship being approved for duty.
At the time of the accident, the boat had "no coherent" sewage management plan and no environmental plan, and investigators found crew training inadequate.
Some of the problems had already been raised in previous reports. A week before the accident, the ship had returned to port after "persistent H2S (hydrogen sulphide) odours" led to the discovery of defects in black water tanks.
Chief petty officer Kurt MacKenzie, was the worst affected of the sailors and spent several days in intensive care in Darwin.
He spent further weeks in hospital and will next year be discharged medically unfit from the navy, after 23 years' service and membership of the 16-member elite Minor War Vessel Sea Training Unit.
It is not the first accident of its kind. Naval Reserve Cadet Kenneth Dax was killed in 1981 when the sewerage system of supply ship HMAS Tobruk leaked hydrogen sulphide gas. In 1985, three sailors were killed and 56 injured when maintenance ship HMAS Stalwart also leaked hydrogen sulphide.
A year later, a Naval Board of Inquiry into the Stalwart, which is no longer in service, found the fatal accident could have been avoided if correct marine engineering practices had been followed.
There was no such public inquiry into the accident aboard the Maitland, with the investigation's findings kept secret amid warnings that anyone leaking the report would be charged under navy regulations.
Chief Petty Officer MacKenzie said yesterday he was launching legal action for compensation on the grounds that the accident could have been prevented.
The veteran sailor dismissed claims by the navy that it had fixed the problems aboard the fleet of Armidale class boats, which patrol Australia's northern waters.
"From what I have been told, only one of the boats is close to meeting the recommended safety upgrades out of the report," Chief Petty Officer MacKenzie said.
"The navy rushed these boats into service -- they were dangerous and we suffered as a result. My career is over. I only have about 40 per cent of lung capacity and a range of other medical problems. But the navy couldn't care less. They didn't conduct a public board of inquiry investigation; they opted for a report they could keep secret."
Chief Petty Officer MacKenzie has been offered the maximum payout of about $400,000 plus a pension, but he says it is not enough, given that his injuries were "not an accident" and that he had had a bright career ahead of him.
The Defence Department issued a statement to The Weekend Australian saying it was unable to release the report into the accident or comment on any findings of the investigation.
Asked if the navy had fully implemented the recommendations of the report into the accident, the ADF said it was still working on the ships.
"The Armidale class patrol boat is a safe, capable and reliable asset," the statement said. "Like any new class of vessel, a number of improvements in design functionality have been identified and are now being implemented."