Strong currents pummel ship stranded on Great Barrier Reef

Strong currents Monday battered a stranded coal carrier that slammed into a stretch of Australia’s 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 potentially releasing more oil or even breaking apart. Meanwhile, workers used a floating boom to contain fuel that has leaked from the vessel.

Maritime Safety Queensland officials have warned that if the ship were to break up, more than 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 about 40 miles east of Great Keppel Island in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef, about nine 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 had dropped chemical dispersant on top of a long slick of oil that trailed from the behemoth, which environmentalists say had no business being anywhere near the reef, 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.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh believes 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, the Queensland state capital, according to news 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. Ltd. in Australia, went unanswered Monday.

The good news for officials was that little additional oil had leaked from the ship overnight. Authorities said the vessel’s main engine room was breached and its rudder was seriously damaged in the accident.

The marooned ship could take weeks to salvage.

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