Barrier Reef oil disaster fear

A Chinese ship is in danger of breaking up after running aground off north-east Australia, sparking fears of a major oil spill into the Great Barrier Reef.

The Shen Neng 1, carrying 950 tonnes of oil, ran aground 70km (43 miles) off the east coast of Great Keppel Island.

Some oil has already leaked and there are fears the coal-carrier may split into parts, causing a greater spillage.

The Australian authorities say the ship was in a protected area, well outside the normal shipping channels.

Chemical dispersants are being used to prevent the spill threatening the World Heritage-listed marine reserve.

There has already been one failed attempt to refloat the 230-metre (754-ft) vessel. Its fuel tank, carrying 150 tonnes, has been punctured.

Light planes flying overhead to assess the extent of the leakage have spotted a small number of oil patches, thought to be two tonnes of oil, almost 4km from the ship.

The Shen Neng 1, with a crew of 23, was carrying about 65,000 tonnes of coal to China from the Queensland port of Gladstone when it ran aground at full speed on a shoal on Saturday.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said the government was investigating why the ship strayed nine miles (15 km) outside the shipping channel.

“The vessel is in a restricted zone of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – these are zones that are off limits to shipping,” she told reporters.

Maritime Safety Queensland general manager Patrick Quirk said: “It is in danger of actually breaking a number of its main structures and breaking into a number of parts.”

Environmentalists have complained that the shipping lane beside the world-renowned marine park has become a “coal highway”.

The Capricorn Conservation Council, a Queensland environmental group, said it feared the incident was a sign of things to come.

The organisation’s vice-president, Ian Herbert, said if the ship broke up “it would would devastate the local ecosystems”.

“There are corals surrounding some of these islands that are very special,” he added.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system and extends for more than 2,500km.

Celebrated as the world’s largest living organism, it is already feared under threat from climate change.