Sydney: A badly damaged Chinese coal carrier stranded on Australia’s World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef was Monday threatening to break up and spill more oil into pristine waters teeming with marine life.
The Shen Neng 1 ran aground on Saturday when it hit a shoal off the eastern state of Queensland at full speed, rupturing a fuel tank and causing a three-kilometre (almost two mile) slick in the scenic tourist spot.
“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,” said the general manager of Marine Safety Queensland Patrick Quirk.
Salvage experts have boarded the Chinese-registered carrier, which is loaded with 65,000 tonnes of coal and about 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, stranded some 70 kilometres east of the resort destination Great Keppel Island.
One tug boat was already at the scene trying to stabilise the vessel and another will arrive later Monday, while aircraft were being used to monitor the spill in waters that are home to hundreds of species of coral and fish.
“The hope is that little oil escaped through the night,” Quirk said.
The vessel hit Douglas Shoal, which is at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and some 15 kilometres outside the nearest shipping channel, at full speed. Authorities said the damage was serious.
Quirk said the initial report was that the ship’s main engine room had been breached, the major engine damaged and the rudder seriously impacted.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said salvage teams were on board and assessing how they might be able to refloat the China-bound carrier.
“This is going to be a very specialist and delicate operation,” she told the Nine Network.
“If this ship was to break further apart, if there was another very significant oil spill, then we would not only see tonnes of oil into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park but modelling shows it is likely to come up onto the beaches of Shoalwater Bay, which is a national park area.”
Bligh said the vessel was in a restricted zone of the Great Barrier Reef which was “totally off limits” to shipping and the government would investigate why the ship was so far off course.
The carrier’s Chinese owners Cosco Group could be fined up to one million dollars (around US$920,000) and the captain handed a 250,000 dollar penalty over the incident, she said.
“Frankly, I think the book should be thrown at this organisation. This is a very delicate part of one of the most precious marine environments on earth,” Bligh told ABC Radio.
The accident, which follows a large oil spill from the container carrier Pacific Adventurer in March 2009 which polluted Queensland beaches, has prompted warnings from conservationists about the impact on the reef as shipping increases.
The number of seaborne exports of coal and natural gas is set to surge in the coming decade as Queensland opens new resource developments to supply Asia’s growing energy needs.
The Great Barrier Reef, which covers 345,000 square kilometres (133,000 square miles) along Australia’s northeast coast, is a major tourist attraction and home to hundreds of species including dugongs, dolphins and sea turtles.