Chinese Coal Ship Lifted Off Damaged Great Barrier Reef

BRISBANE, Queensland, Australia, April 13, 2010 (ENS) – Salvage experts have successfully refloated the Chinese coal carrier Shen Neng 1 that went aground on the Great Barrier Reef 10 days ago. Oil spilled from the ship’s damaged hull into the pristine waters around the grounding site, which is at least 10 kilometers away from the authorized shipping lane.

Initial fears that the 230 meter-long coal carrier would break in two, spilling coal and fuel oil onto the world’s longest reef proved to be unfounded.

Maritime Safety Queensland General Manager Patrick Quirk said that shortly after 6 pm yesterday, three tugs with cables hooked up to the Shen Neng 1 and began pulling the damaged ship and its 65,000 tonnes of coal off of Douglas Shoal located along the central Queensland coast.

Oil slick floats from the damaged coal carrier Shen Neng 1 grounded on the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo courtesy Maritime Safety Queensland)

Overnight the Chinese coal carrier was moved around 35 nautical miles to a safe anchorage five nautical miles northeast of Great Keppel Island.

Before the refloating was attempted, salvage experts from Svitzer Salvage Australasia pumped off much of the 975 tonnes of fuel oil onboard when the ship crashed into the reef on April 3 while carrying a shipment of coal from Gladstone, Queensland to China.

Inspectors now are examining the ship and the grounding site to determine exactly what went wrong and how extensive the damage is.

The ship is owned by the Shenzhen Energy Transport Co. Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Shenzhen Energy Group Co. Ltd., a public company listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

The Shen Neng 1 was severely damaged on her port side, and left a three kilometer (two mile) long oil slick in the protected waters of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result, Queensland declared two islands and parts of the Sunshine Coast a disaster zone.

Despite the efforts of the salvors and Maritime Safety Queensland, the agency said that oil believed to have come from the Shen Neng has been found on an island 10 kilometers south of the grounding site. Tar balls have been found on North West Island, the most important bird rookery on the reef and a turtle nesting colony.

“This is certainly the largest ship grounding damage site that I have ever seen on the Great Barrier Reef. So this is a significant environmental event,” David Wachenfeld, chief scientist with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Wachenfeld told “The Age” newspaper that it could take at least 20 years for the reef to recover from the damage caused by the Shen Neng 1.

Speaking on the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Wachenfeld said today, “We found areas of up to 20 to 40 meters across where the top of the shoal has been completely pulverized. So all of the plants and animals have been killed.” As much as four tonnes of fuel spilled from the Shen Neng, Wachenfeld said last week.

The Shen Neng hard aground on the Great Barrier Reef stabilized by two salvors’ tugboats (Photo courtesy Australian Maritime Safety Authority)

A team of marine scientists is now at the grounding site inspecting the environmental damage. The environmental assessment is being led by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority with support from the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Minister for Environment Protection Peter Garrett said, “Ship groundings can result in significant localized damage to habitats. Groundings such as this often leave grounding scars in the reef substrate where the coral is crushed and compacted.”

“This initial inspection is an important early step in assessing how this shipping incident affected the shoal,” Garrett said.

The team will gather photographic and video evidence of any damage, map the damage zone, quantify the damage and sample for pollutants.

“The Scientific Advisory Panel I asked GBRMPA to establish earlier this month, will review the information from the environmental inspection and advise on the next steps,” said Garrett.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said in a statement today that her government plans to raise fines for companies involved in oil spills to as much as A$9.3 million from $1.7 million as a result of the Shen Neng incident.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has called for export ships to use alternative routes that avoid the world renowned marine icon. ACF’s Healthy Oceans Campaign Coordinator Chris Smyth said the oil spill would have a detrimental effect on the pristine coral reefs and the marine life that use them, including dolphins, dugongs, rays, turtles, clown fish and numerous other reef species.

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