, SYDNEY, Apr 5 – Australian authorities were Monday battling to prevent a badly damaged Chinese coal carrier stranded on the Great Barrier Reef from spilling tonnes of 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, apparently breaching a fuel tank and causing a three-kilometre (two-mile) slick in the scenic tourist spot.
Authorities remain concerned that the ship, which is being hit by a two to three-metre swell and grinding against the reef, may break up but professional salvage experts on board believe that risk has diminished.
"The ship is stuck on a shoal and wave action is meaning that it\’s moving," Marine Safety Queensland (MSQ) spokesman Mark Strong told AFP.
"Every time that happens you increase the risk of damage to the structure.
"The assessment as of now from the salvors is that the ship is reasonably stable."
The Chinese-registered carrier, which is loaded with 65,000 tonnes of coal and about 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, is stranded 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 early Tuesday, while aircraft were being used to monitor the spill in waters that are home to hundreds of species of coral and fish.
"In the current conditions we are reasonably assured, as far as we can be, that there will be no catastrophic break-up of the ship, but if the weather turned bad it will be another problem," MSQ general Patrick Quirk said.
The vessel hit Douglas Shoal at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, 15 nautical miles outside the nearest shipping channel, at full speed.
Authorities said the damage was serious, confirming that the rudder was seriously damaged, the ship\’s double bottom tanks which provide buoyancy had been breached and one of the fuel tanks had also likely been breached.
So far, however, the oil spill has been limited to about three or four tonnes. After dispersant was used on the slick on Sunday, workers will now place a boom around the oil to prevent it from spreading further.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said salvage teams were assessing how they might be able to refloat the China-bound carrier, including removing all the oil from the ship first.
"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, a subsidiary of Cosco Group, could be fined up to one million dollars (920,000 US) and the captain handed a 250,000 dollar penalty over the incident, she said.
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.