SYDNEY (AP) - Globules of oil believed to be from a Chinese ship that slammed into Australia's Great Barrier Reef are washing up on a nearby wildlife sanctuary, officials said Wednesday in the latest environmental fallout from the crash.
The Shen Neng 1 coal carrier veered into protected waters and ran aground on Douglas Shoal on April 3, immediately leaking 2-3 tons of fuel when coral shredded its hull. The vessel tore a 2-mile- (3-kilometer-) long gash into the shoal, causing damage that one leading marine scientist said could take up to 20 years to heal.
On Wednesday, a team of about 25 people was working to clean up
bits of oil that had begun washing ashore on North West Island, a
turtle hatchery and bird sanctuary about 12 miles (18 kilometers)
from where the ship crashed into the reef, Maritime Safety
Queensland spokesman Adam Nicholson said.
The globules were about an inch (3 centimeters) wide, and were
scattered across about a half-mile (1 kilometer) of beach on the
island, the second largest coral key on the reef.
Officials had not officially confirmed the oil came from the
Shen Neng, but suspected it had, given its proximity to the
grounding site, Nicholson said. The cleanup was expected to be
relatively quick, because the oil is confined to a small area, he
The 755-foot (230-meter) Shen Neng 1 was successfully lifted off
the reef Monday after crews spent three days pumping fuel to
lighten it. Salvage crews later towed it to an anchorage area near
Great Keppel Island, 45 miles (70 kilometers) away.
Its refloating left a scar 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) long and up
to 820 feet (250 meters) wide.
"There is more damage to this reef than I have ever seen in any
previous Great Barrier Reef groundings," Great Barrier Reef Marine
Park Authority chief scientist David Wachenfeld said Tuesday.
Most of the oil that first leaked from the hull was quickly
dispersed by chemical sprays and is believed to have caused little
or no damage.
The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site because of its
gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of
marine species. The accident occurred in the southern tip of the
reef, which is not the main tourism hub.
The reef was hit particularly badly because the vessel did not
stay in one place once it grounded, Wachenfeld said. Instead, tides
and currents pushed it along the reef, crushing and smearing
potentially toxic paint onto coral and plants, he said.
In some areas, "all marine life has been completely flattened
and the structure of the shoal has been pulverized by the weight of
the vessel," Wachenfeld said, speaking of the fragile coral and
the plants that may have inhabited the area.
Even if severe toxic contamination is not found at the site,
initial assessments by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
indicate it could take 20 years for the coral reef to recover,
Perhaps most concerning to the scientists is the chemical makeup
of the paint used on the ship's hull, which divers have found
spread across the vast majority of the impacted region.
Many oceangoing vessels are covered in what is known as
"anti-fouling" paint, which prevents marine life from growing on
their hulls and creating drag. Certain paints contain chemicals
that prevent such growth, while others simply act as a barrier.
Scientists with the reef authority plan to analyze paint left by
the Shen Neng to see if it contains heavy metals. If it does,
Wachenfeld said, it would not only kill the marine life on the
shoal, but prevent new life from colonizing there.
It will be at least another week before the full extent of the
damage is known.
Australian authorities are investigating alleged breaches of law
connected with the accident. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has since
warned that cargo ships entering restricted waters would face the
full force of the law.
The ship's owners, Shenzen Energy Transport, said last week they
were cooperating with the investigation. They said the ship was
traveling through a legal channel when it inexplicably failed to
turn eastward to avoid the shoal.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)