Currents threaten stricken ship on Great Barrier Reef

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Strong currents on Monday battered a stranded coal carrier that slammed into a stretch of the Great Barrier Reef over the weekend, raising fears that more oil from the stricken ship would leak into the pristine ocean habitat.

Officials sent a second tugboat to help keep the Chinese-registered Shen Neng 1 from grinding against the reef and releasing more oil and even breaking apart. Meanwhile, workers used a floating boom to contain petrol that has leaked from the vessel.

Maritime Safety Queensland officials warned that if the ship broke in two, some 65,000 tons of coal and 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil used to run the ship’s engines would spill into the marine reserve.

The lumbering carrier rammed into the reef late Saturday, 38 nautical miles east of Great Keppel Island in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef, miles from the nearest shipping lanes.

“One of the most worrying aspects is that the ship is still moving on the reef due to the action of the seas, which is doing further damage,” Maritime Safety General Manager Patrick Quirk said in a statement.

Planes on Sunday dropped chemical dispersant on top of a long slick of oil that trailed from the carrier, which environmentalists say should not have been near the reef. The Great Barrier Reef stretches for more than 1,800 miles and is a United Nations World Heritage site.

Federal authorities said they would launch an investigation into why the coal carrier had ventured inside a restricted zone of the marine park, far from the shipping channels.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said Australian officials should severely penalize the ship’s owners and captain, pointing to possible breaches of national shipping laws.

“This ship has acted illegally going into these restricted areas,” she told reporters in Brisbane, according to wire service reports. “The Commonwealth government is now investigating how this happened and I hope, frankly, they throw the book at them.”

Bligh said the shipping company could be fined $1 million and the ship’s captain $250,000 for the breach of law.

Calls to the ship’s owner, COSCO Oceania Pty. Limited in Australia went unanswered on Monday.

Little additional oil had leaked from the ship overnight. Authorities said that the vessel’s main engine room was breached and its rudder is seriously damaged. The marooned ship could take weeks to salvage, authorities said.

Ju-min Park of the Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report