A large Chinese freighter crashed into the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia over the weekend. Tugboat crews and salvage experts fought on Monday to save the freighter from breaking apart and releasing more than a thousand tons of engine fuel on the world’s largest coral reef. There were also rescue crews standing by to save the 23 man crew in the event that the ship did break apart.
Not long after leaving port in Gladstone, the Shen Neng 1 slammed into the reef at full speed late Saturday evening. The ship was traveling 9 miles outside of its authorized route and carrying 72,000 tons of coal. Upon impact the ship obtained a hole in the bottom, a damaged main engine and rudder. But what is even more worrying is that although the ship is caught up on the reef it is still moving due to the movements of the sea, which is causing further damage to the ship. A ribbon of oil about two miles long and as wide as a football field was treated with a chemical dispersant on Sunday, because large ocean swells prevented using floating booms to contain the oil.
The Shen Neng 1 is carrying coal to China which is the world’s largest consumer of coal, and has fuel bunkers filled to the brim because of the length of time it takes to get to China from Australia and because of the long port delays that are regularly experienced in China. When evaluating the potential for disaster it comes to mind that coal is less toxic than oil, but if the ship comes apart the coal will blanket the sea bottom and cause damage to the natural environment.
The environmental movement in Australia is likely to require a full investigation as to how the Shen Neng 1 got so far off course that it was in a position to threaten the Great Barrier Reef. The area where the ship crashed into the reef is subject to stringent environmental restrictions and is a popular sport fishing area.