Yet another oil spill off the Australian coast. This time the famed Great Barrier Reef itself could be under threat, but authorities maintain it's only a minor spill and could be contained.
It was a Chinese coal carrier Shen Neng One that ran aground on Douglas Shoal, off central Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef late yesterday. The ship had departed from the Port of Gladstone and was bound for China.
Early this morning it was†found the hull had been breached and an attempt to refloat the ship was abandoned.
At first light planes flew over the area to assess the extent of the slick and found the oil as far as two nautical miles south-east of the grounding.
Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) general manager Patrick Quirk says the ship was off course.
"The vessel is a long way from where it should have been," he said.
The ship has more than 900 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board, and MSQ says a fuel tank with 150 tonnes of heavy oil has been breached.
MSQ insists†it is not a major oil leak, but it is not yet known whether it is large enough to impact the reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest reef system composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands, stretching for over 2,600 kilometres, and is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia.
This reef supports a wide diversity of life, and was selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981. CNN labeled it one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is also a†very popular destination for tourists. Naturally environmentalists are concerned.
The Greens' lead Senate candidate in Queensland Larissa Waters say the ship's spill could cause a similar environmental impact to one in Moreton Bay last year.
"As we saw in the Moreton Bay spill, which was initially small, but mushroomed out to a massive catastrophe, it's looking more and more like we might have a repeat of this just off Great Keppel Island, which is a pristine area," she said.
"There's huge threats to wildlife here, oil is really bad news as everybody knows for marine life and for corals."
Greens leader Bob Brown said the Shen Neng 1 did not have a pilot when the accident occurred.†
†† "Despite calls for all such ships to have pilots aboard, both Canberra and Brisbane have bowed to the coal and shipping companies to avoid this common sense requirement," he said in a statement.†
Senator Brown said the "reckless" decision not to insist on pilots had caused a potential disaster near one of the world's greatest natural wonders.†††
He slammed moves to expand coal exports throughout the Great Barrier Reef area, given there was no plans for mandatory ship piloting.†††
Greens have also demanded†that Marine pilots are made compulsory for all carriers travelling through the inner passage to the Great Barrier Reef. The cost of engaging a marine pilot for the length of the Reef is $8,000- $10,000 according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.†
"Cutting costs on this while risking our multi-billion dollar reef tourism industry is unforgivable," Ms Waters said.†††
She also wants industry to bear the full cost of pollution clean ups.†† "Industry should pay the full cost of pollution incident response and clean up operations.†
†† Ms Waters said the government should be looking to protect the Great Barrier Reef rather than treating it like a "coal highway."††
"Instead Government is bending over backwards to increase exports of fossil fuels, rather than investing in job rich clean renewable energy which safeguards our reef," she said.†††
"The state government is being blinded by royalties and this short-sightedness will go down in history as killing the Reef."
Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett says it is too early to say whether there will be any lasting effect on the Great Barrier Reef.
"We don't have advice at present as to whether the oil is going to threaten any part of the ecology of the reef," he said.
"That's why we want to use a dispersant quickly by trialing to assess its effectiveness. Once we've evaluated its effectiveness, then it might be available for further use."
Mr Garrett says the dispersants have been used safely before.
"This dispersant's been used in the past, it's been used without lasting impacts on the environment, and that's the whole of the environment," he said.