Danger far from over in Shen Neng 1 Barrier Reef oil spill

A grounded coal ship on the Great Barrier Reef could spill more oil onto the reef if the vessel is refloated too soon. Maritime Safety Queensland says a hydrostatic plug caused by the pressure of the ocean water is preventing oil escaping from the ship’s engine room. This plug may give way if the breach in the tank is not repaired before refloating. MSQ general manager Patrick Quirk said today they needed to assess the vessel’s remaining strength before consider salvage options.

The 230m-long bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground at Douglas Shoal 70km east of Great Keppel Island at 5.10pm on Saturday. The ship left Gladstone bound for China with a crew of 23, 65,000 tonnes of coal and 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. It was off course 120km east of Rockhampton in a protected area, well outside normal shipping channels. The 150 tonne fuel tank is ruptured and heavy seas are driving the ship further into the fragile reef area. Shen Neng 1 owners Chinese COSCO Group is one of the largest shipping companies in the world with 500 vessels.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has threatened fines of $1 million for the company and a further $200,000 for the captain for straying into the off-limits area. The owners could also be liable for the multi-million dollar clean up, though as Queensland found out last year in the Pacific Adventurer case, there is an upper limit set by international maritime convention. The ship’s captain initially told MSQ no oil had spilled. The impact, he said, created a hole in the ship’s lower hull 40m from the nearest oil storage area. The captain said he would try to refloat the ship after midnight. MSQ worked with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to coordinate the emergency response. AMSA airlifted surveyors aboard to assess the ship’s condition. Emergency surveillance aircraft inspected the scene at first light. A long-range helicopter came from Bundaberg to take specialist response personnel to the vessel.At 2am Sunday, the oil advice to MSQ had changed. There was an unknown amount of oil in the water, though the media release did not say who provided this advice or how it squared with the captain’s earlier statement about the hole being 40m away from oil storage. The advice kicked off a national oil spill response plan. MSQ asked the GBRMPA for permission to use aerial dispersants on the oil leak. Response crews were activated in Brisbane, Gladstone and Rockhampton. MSQ’s vessel Norfolk was dispatched from Heron Island for logistical support.

By daylight on Easter Sunday it was clear from the air there were oil patches in the waters south-east of the ship. MSQ said at 8.30am there was “no major loss of oil”. The carrier was aground on a shoal and would need salvage crews to get it off. A light aircraft from Rockhampton arrived midmorning to spray chemical dispersant. Early arrival was critical as dispersants are most effective in breaking up heavy oil when deployed within the first two days.

A second aircraft arrived mid-afternoon yesterday to spray what MSQ called “a ‘ribbon’ of oil measuring approximately three kilometres by 100 metres.” MSQ staff reported small volumes of oil near the ship but its persistent nature meant it could take some time to break apart. Modelling showed oil could wash up around the nearby Shoalwater Bay military area within two days, depending on weather.

The most recent MSQ update at 6am today reported salvors were aboard the Shen Neng 1 to begin the salvage process. The main engine room was breached, the main engine damaged and the rudder seriously damaged. With reported two metre swells in the area, the ship was still moving on the reef causing further damage. The long term consequences to the fragile reef are yet to be fully felt.

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