By Eric K. Williams
(Special to YOUR FREE PRESS)
Melbourne, Australia -- In a slowly unfolding environmental story with grave consequences, government officials, both locally and nationally here, are watching with bated breath just what happens next with a Chinese oil tanker now straddling one of the world's best known natural wonders. Less than 48 hours after U.S. President Barack Obama announced limited oil drilling on America's East Coast, on the east coast of Australia, American and environmental activists around the world are watching developments closely. This story of a Chinese oil tanker running aground the night before Easter, has been slow to develop. Yet, the implication of possible irreversible destruction to the Great Barrier Reed is changing by the minute.
The Shen Neng 1 was 15km outside the shipping lane and near a known shortcut between reefs in Queensland's world famous marine playground when it crashed into coral.
A Maritime Safety Queensland spokesman has confirmed the existence of a channel with sufficient depth to enable ships to pass through – effectively creating a Reef rat run to save time and money in their journeys.
But authorities are refusing to discuss any reason for the Shen Neng 1 being so far off course. More than two days after the incident, they have started three inquiries but not formally interviewed the crew.
Authorities are hoping for good weather to stop a stricken carrier spilling more oil into the Great Barrier Reef.
The Shen Neng 1 hit Douglas Shoal at full speed on Saturday evening.
Maritime experts said good weather forecast for the area would stop a "catastrophic break-up of the ship".
Equipment will arrive at the scene of the grounded bulk carrier on Wednesday which it is hoped will be able to contain further oil spills or pump oil off the ship.
Tugs have also been brought in to stabilise the vessel, which has been dragged by the force of the ocean up to 30m away from where it first hit Douglas Shoal.
Sonar equipment is expected to paint a clearer picture of the damage to Shen Neng 1's engine, rudder and fuel tanks, while the army remains on standby should oil wash up on nearby beaches.
Three investigations have been launched into how the ship came to be up to 15 nautical miles off course when it ran aground, but there are still no answers as to how the ship came to be in the restricted area.
Speculation has mounted that the ship was taking a shortcut when it rammed into Douglas Shoal.
Maritime Safety Queensland have revealed that maritime maps of the area showed a lane existed between the two reefs that would allow passage for a cargo ship.
An MSQ spokesman said the passage was possible, but "poorly executed" by the Shen Neng 1 which was obviously "well outside the shipping lanes".
Commercial and non-commercial fishermen said they saw at least one bulk carrier duck south of Douglas Shoal every day.
In addition to investigations under way by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the MSQ, Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett has asked the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to assess the damage and advise on the ship's safe removal.
Rockhampton Regional Council Mayor Brad Carter said his community wanted to know why their prized portion of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was placed in jeopardy.
"I will be looking for a full explanation from federal and state authorities as to how this situation occurred and how a vessel of this size could be so far off course in the Great Barrier Reef," he said.
Cr Carter said he was disgusted that it was allowed to veer off course in such a delicate area, and called for those responsible to face charges.
Chinese owners Cosco maintained their public silence yesterday but face fines of up to $1 million over the incident, while the captain could be handed an individual penalty of up to $250,000. The Cosco group did not respond to inquiries from The Courier-Mail but AMSA spokeswoman Tracey Jiggins said Cosco was in regular contact with the salvage company Svitzer.
Premier Anna Bligh said the ship had acted illegally and it should face the "full force of the law". The crew are yet to be formally interviewed, and have remained on board the vessel.
Authorities said yesterday their focus had remained on stabilising the vessel and minimising the oil spill.
AMSA chief executive Graham Peachey said the first priority was to clean up the damage and salvage the ship, and a thorough investigation would follow. "We will be looking very, very carefully at this," he said.
"It is in the wrong place – there's no doubt about that – but the inquiry will actually establish why and how it got there and also establish what offence may or may not have been committed against Commonwealth law."
MSQ yesterday said they expected good weather forecast for the area would stop further damage to the vessel.
"In the current conditions we are reasonably assured, as far as we can be, that there will be no catastrophic break-up of the ship, but if the weather turned bad it will be another problem," general manager Patrick Quirk said.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will fly over the Shen Neng 1 on Tuesday to survey the damage to the Reef. Mr Garrett said he would work closely with Transport Minister Anthony Albanese to consider if additional measures were required for managing shipping in the Great Barrier Reef.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said Mr Garrett was not fit to be overseeing the disaster clean-up.
"Peter Garrett is a proven failure," he said. "He has a proven record of incompetence when it comes to managing programs and dealing with issues."
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