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Chinese Coal Ship Aground on Great Barrier Reef Spills Oil
BRISBANE, Australia, April 5, 2010 (ENS) - Angry Queensland Premier Anna Bligh says "the book should be thrown" at the owners of a grounded Chinese coal cargo ship leaking oil into pristine waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The Shen Neng 1 ran aground on Douglas Shoal in Australian waters off the central Queensland coast on Saturday. It is at the mercy of winds and tides and is being held steady in heavy swells only by a specialized tug boat.

The oil spill from the Shen Neng 1 is now three kilometers (2 miles) long and 100 meters wide and the vessel is badly damaged and at risk of breaking up, say maritime safety officials.

Chemical dispersants sprayed from the air Sunday have helped break up some of the oil that has already leaked, said Premier Bligh.

The Shen Neng 1 is aground on the Great Barrier Reef spilling oil. April 4, 2010. (Photos courtesy Maritime Safety Queensland)

The 230 meter (755 foot) long bulk carrier was carrying about 65,000 metric tonnes (72,000 tons) of coal to China and had 950 tonnes of heavy fuel oil aboard. It ran aground within hours of departing the Queensland port of Gladstone.

The ship was traveling some 15 kilometers (9 miles) outside of the authorized shipping channel in a restricted part of the world's longest reef, when it rammed the reef at full speed about 70 km (43 miles) east of Great Keppel Island.

How that happened is now the subject of a comprehensive investigation by Commonwealth authorities.

The ship's owners, the Cosco Group, China's largest shipping company, could be fined more than $1 million and its captain $220,000, said Premier Bligh.

"The government is very conscious of the importance of the Great Barrier Reef environment and ensuring that impacts on its ecology are effectively managed," said Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett in a statement.

Maritime Safety Queensland activated a national oil spill response plan after it was informed of the grounding Saturday night.

Maritime Safety Queensland General Manager Patrick Quirk said professional salvers are on the vessel this morning. They are assessing the structural integrity of the ship and options for refloating it.

The initial damage report is that the main engine room was breached, the main engine damaged and the rudder seriously damaged, said Quirk.

"One of the most worrying aspects is that the ship is still moving on the reef to the action of the seas, which is doing further damage," he said.

"A second tug is due to arrive in the early afternoon to assist the specialized tug already there to stabilize the vessel," Quirk said. "We also have helicopters surveying the coast to prepare early planning in the event of needing to get equipment onto the beach."

Current modeling shows that oil could wash up around the Shoalwater Bay military area within the next two days. But Quirk says this depends on the effectiveness of the dispersants and the prevailing weather.

 

Premier Bligh said, "We want to get the vessel off the reef with as little damage as possible. We want to prevent the possibility of a larger oil spill."

Salvaging the Shen Neng 1 could take "some weeks" and be "one of most complex and difficult salvage operations we've seen," Bligh said. "It will require all the expertise we can bring to bear."

Sea conditions, including a swell of about two to three meters (6.5 to 10 feet), has ruled out deploying a boom to date, but Premier Bligh says a boom will be put around the coal carrier within 24 hours to contain the oil leaking from the ship's hull.

Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown says both the federal and Queensland state governments share responsibility for the Chinese coal carrier being without a pilot when it ran aground.

"Despite calls for all such ships to have pilots aboard, both Canberra and Brisbane have bowed to the coal and shipping companies to avoid this common sense requirement," said Senator Brown. "The failure to insist on pilots has been reckless."

"This is a potential disaster in one of the world's greatest natural wonders," Brown said. "But both the Rudd and Bligh governments are planning massive expansion of coal exports throughout the Great Barrier Reef region with no plans for mandatory piloting."

Bligh said 6,000 ships pass by the Great Barrier Reef in the authorized shipping channel without incident every year and that number is expected to increase with the emerging gas industry.

"The authorized shipping channel is not a risky or dangerous channel that's why it doesn't currently require pilots," the premier said. "This ship is miles off any authorized shipping channel."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.



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