Stranded Ship 'Time Bomb' to Great Barrier Reef

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Reuters

Stranded Ship 'Time Bomb' to Great Barrier Reef

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Oil is seen next to the 230-metre (754-ft) bulk coal carrier Shen Neng I about 70 km (43 miles) east of Great Keppel Island April 5, 2010. (Credit: REUTERS/Maritime Safety Queensland/Handout)

SYDNEY - A
stranded Chinese coal ship leaking oil onto Australia's Great Barrier
Reef is an environmental time bomb with the potential to devastate
large protected areas of the reef, activists said on Monday.

The
ship was a "ticking environmental time bomb," Gilly Llewellyn, director
of conservation for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Australia,
told Reuters.

She said this was the third major international incident involving its owners in four years.

Australian
government officials say the stricken Shen Neng I belongs to the
Shenzhen Energy Group, a subsidiary of China's state-owned China Ocean
Shipping (Group) Company, better known by its acronym COSCO.

In
2007, COSCO was linked to a major oil spill in San Francisco bay, while
last year it was tied to another in Norway, both of which damaged
environmentally sensitive areas.

"We are seeing a concerning pattern potentially associated with this company," Llewellyn told Reuters.

COSCO officials in Australia could not be contacted for comment on Monday.

The
Great Barrier Reef stretches along Australia's northeastern coast and
is the only living structure on Earth visible from space. It is the
world's largest coral reef and a major tourist draw.

As
salvagers struggled on Monday to stop the ship breaking up and spilling
hundreds of tons of oil and thousands of tons of coal,
environmentalists told Reuters tighter controls on shipping were needed
to protect the reef as Australia's energy industry expands.

SHIP NEEDS HELP

Although
only a small amount of the 975 tons of fuel oil on board has so far
leaked, Australian officials have warned the ship is unable to move off
the shoal unaided, as its engine and rudder were damaged.

International
salvage firm Svitzer has been engaged and has attempted to use tugs to
stabilize the vessel, but the head of the government agency overseeing
the operation said on Monday the ship was still moving on the reef.

The
230-meter (754-ft) ship was carrying 65,000 tons of coal to China when
it ran aground on Saturday with 975 tons of heavy fuel oil on board, a
type of oil environmentalists say is particularly sticky and damaging
to marine organisms.

The ship was
off-course and traveling at full speed when it hit, Australian
officials have said. If it broke up as feared, environmentalists said
the effects could be devastating.

"We would potentially be looking at an environmental disaster," Llewellyn said." It would be an extremely large spill."

Among
the animals affected would be protected species of turtles, dugongs,
and marine birds, as well as the sensitive corals, she said.

Chris
Smyth, an ocean campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation,
said with Australia planning to expand its energy industry, its
government needs to consider whether ships should be traveling through
the reef at all.

"It is going to
actually increase shipping traffic substantially and the likelihood of
these kinds of incidents occurring in the future," he told Reuters.

This
is Australia's third such recent disaster, he said, following two last
year, another oil spill off the Queensland coast and a major oil well
blowout in the Timor Sea.

It
should be clearer within the next few days what the likely scale of
this disaster may be, Smyth said. In a worst case scenario, the spilled
oil could reach protected areas on the Australian mainland, he said.

On
Monday, Queensland state premier Anna Bligh called for tough legal
action against the shipowners, saying they could face fines of up to
A$1 million ($920,000), with the captain facing a further fine of up to
A$220,000.

Investigations are underway by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

A
spokeswoman for AMSA told Reuters its investigation would be "exploring
breaches and possible offences" under Australian law. Some 23 crew who
were on board the vessel when it ran aground so far appeared to be
safe, she said.

Rescue officials have said the ship will require a long and careful salvage operation, expected to take weeks.

(A$1=$0.92)

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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