A Chinese registered bulk carrier has run aground on the Great Barrier reef

Updated news on this issue 12 April 2010:

The immediate danger from massive pollution has been averted, the ship has been refloated and towed to anchorage off Keppel Island where damage assessments will be carried out by divers.

The damage to the Barrier reef is said to be more than a kilometer of reef damage as a result of the ship 'scouring' the reef as it ground to a halt after it first struck the reef. The damage is exacerbated, apparently, because of toxic paint left behind which is killing corals?

It has transpired that the crew were taking an illegal shortcut through the reef, for which they will face criminal charges individually.

The owners of the ship, COSCO, face over USD20 million in penalties as a seperate case. The Ships captain is said to be looking at a fine of a quarter of a million dollars in his own right.

Comments have been made that the practice of taking shortcuts like this are fairly commonplace so the need to impose serious penalties in this case are of paramount importance.

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 ran into the shoals off Queensland's coast in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The bulk carrier 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 bulk carrier 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 bulk carrier breaking up and spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil and thousands of tonnes of coal, environmentalists told Reuters tighter controls on shipping were needed to protect the reef as Australia's energy industry expands.

Although only a small amount of the 975 tonnes 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 stabilise the vessel, but the head of the government agency overseeing the operation said on Monday the bulk carrier was still moving on the reef.

The 230-metre (754-ft) bulk carrier was carrying 65,000 tonnes of coal to China when it ran aground on Saturday with 975 tonnes 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 travelling 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 travelling 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 spilt 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 (600,000 pounds), with the captain facing a further fine of up to A$220,000.

"It's in such a delicate part of the reef and the ship is in such a badly damaged state, managing this process will require all the specialist expertise we can bring to bear," she told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. She said it could take weeks to dislodge the ship.

Bligh said a boom will be put around the ship by 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 told reporters in Brisbane.

"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," Bligh 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.

Two tugs arrived Monday to stabilize the ship, Marine Safety Queensland said.

"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, according to the agency's general manager, Patrick Quirk. Initial damage reports showed flooding in the main engine room and damage to the main engine and the rudder.

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

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