Local spill responders monitor ship grounding near Great Barrier Reef


by GARY CHITTIM / KING 5 News and Associated Press


Posted on April 6, 2010 at 1:34 PM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 6 at 6:55 PM

SEATTLE -- State Department of Ecology Oil Spill teams are concentrating on a mock accident in Tacoma today, but before and afterwards their minds on are on the other side of the planet where a real disaster is unfolding.

"They have a major problem on their hands," said State Spills Manager David Byers, referring to the Chinese flagged coal ship aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef and one listed as a World Heritage site because of its gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of marine species.

The ship struck the reef Sunday and has begun to leak it's operating fuel in what is considered one of the most sensitive and productive marine environments in the world. There are fears it could rupture more of its tanks or even break apart.

Spill teams there are already making decisions which sacrifice one form of pollution over others. They are trying a technique called dispersant bombing. Oil spill dispersants are chemicals that spread out the oil through the water column to get off the surface where it causes the most damage to birds and other sea life.

Another technique under consideration is called in-situ burning. It involves setting fire to the surface of the oil slick to burn off as much of the contamination as possible. Both techniques are drastic measures that don't eliminate the spill, just change it into another form of contamination.

"It would be a very difficult decision for us," said Byers of the two techniques. He said both are options if a similar situation occurred here, options they never want to use.

Two tugboats were sent Monday to stabilize the Chinese-registered Shen Neng 1 so that it would not break apart and further damage the fragile coral beneath.

Officials to question ship's crew

The crew of a coal-carrying ship will be questioned Tuesday about why their vessel was in a restricted area, an official said.

"We've always said the vessel is up in an area it shouldn't be in the first place," Marine Safety Queensland general manager Patrick Quirk said. "How it got to that to that position will be the subject of a detailed investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Board."

Quirk said the agency was aware that other ships sometimes used a shortcut through the reef, a practice that will also be reviewed by the federal government.

The ship's owner, Shenzhen Energy, a subsidiary of the Cosco Group that is China's largest shipping operator, could be fined up to 1 million Australian dollars ($920,000) for straying from a shipping lane used by 6,000 cargo vessels each year.

"This is a very delicate part of one of the most precious marine environments on earth and there are safe authorized shipping channels—and that's where this ship should have been," Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said Monday.

She said a boom will be put around the ship Tuesday to contain oil leaking from the hull. Aircraft sprayed chemical dispersants in an effort to break up the slick Sunday.

"Our No. 1 priority is keeping this oil off the Barrier Reef and keeping it contained," she said.

Authorities fear the ship will break apart during the salvage operation and wreck more coral, or spill more of its heavy fuel oil into the sun-soaked sea. However, Bligh said the risk of the ship breaking apart appeared to have lessened since the first of two tug boats arrived and reduced its movement.

About 2 tons (2 metric tons) of oil have already spilled from the 1,000 tons (950 metric tons) of fuel on board, creating a 100-yard (100-meter) slick that stretches 2 miles (3 kilometers), Marine Safety Queensland said in a statement.

Bligh said it could take weeks to dislodge the ship.

"One of the most worrying aspects is that the ship is still moving on the reef to the action of the seas, which is doing further damage" to the coral and hull, Quirk said.

A police boat was standing by to evacuate the 23 crew members if the ship breaks apart.

The bulk carrier was taking about 72,000 tons (65,000 metric tons) of coal to China from the Queensland port of Gladstone when it slammed into the shoals off Queensland's coast in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Numerous conservation groups have expressed outrage that bulk carriers can travel through the reef without a specialized marine pilot. Shipping lanes in Australian waters typically require a seasoned captain to go aboard an incoming ship to help navigate around hazards. Until now, the government has said there is no need for marine pilots around the protected area because large ships are banned there.