Risky rescue planned for leaking ship in Great Barrier Reef

By Amy Middleton 5 April 2010
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A leaking Chinese coal carrier continues to threaten reef off the coast of Rockhampton, as plans get underway to salvage the vessel.

EXPERTS HAVE TODAY confirmed that the removal of the Shen Neng I – a 230 m bulk carrier run aground in the Great Barrier Reef – will have to rely on a tactical salvage mission.

Mark Strong, a spokesman for Maritime Safety Queensland, says that, since running aground on Saturday evening, the vessel continues to threaten the delicate ecosystem of Douglas Shoals.

confirmed that it’s on the shoal and is continuing to move under waves, which
is not good – that brings increasing risk to the ship and to the shoal,” he told Australian Geographic today.

Risky business

While experts could not estimate how long the salvaging process would take, dispersants have thus far been used against several tonnes of oil that are confirmed to have spilled into the ecosystem. Local emergency crews are currently on standby to deal with any oil that reaches the mainland shore.

Mark attests that the dispersants, though they have been successful in the past, must be used with caution in the delicate ecosystem. “[Dispersants] have got to be used under the right cirumstances. You’ve got to make sure you hit the right target,” he says.

Maritime Safety Queensland yesterday expressed concern that the vessel would begin to break apart, risking more damage to the ship and the shoals. Until experts aboard the vessel have delivered their assessment, which Mark hopes will be in the next day or two, further concerns of the planned operation are unclear.

‘Coal highway’

The assessment today takes place alongside aerial inspections to monitor the
amount of oil that has spilled from the Chinese coal carrier. While the
Queensland Government insists that the amount of oil spilled remains
very small, controversy surrounds the reason for the carrier’s
diversion into delicate Douglas Shoals. The restricted zone lies 15 km
outside of the authorised shipping lane for cargo carriers — a
permitted thoroughfare the Greens yesterday called a ‘coal highway’.

incident has raised questions around the need for knowledgeable marine
pilots aboard all vessels navigating the Reef. But Mark says an
investigation had already been underway prior to this latest disaster.

The State Government is looking at further extending coverage of pilots or
tracking services,” Mark says. “Coincidentally they were looking at that as part of the
investigation of the increase in traffic from the LNG deal.”

$20 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) deal, confirmed earlier this year,
promises to supply Japan with 1.2 million tonnes of LNG a year from a
planned facility off Gladstone in Central Queensland. The expansion is
the basis for the Greens’ argument that vessel traffic will
effect the Reef, and in turn, Queensland’s tourism industry, if limits
are not put in place. The carrier about to be salvaged from Douglas
Shoals ran aground just hours after leaving the existing port at

Larissa Waters, the Greens lead Senate candidate for Queensland, says that “the Great Barrier Reef is not a coal highway, it is a multibillion dollar tourism icon and biodiversity wonder which government should do its utmost to protect.”