Monday, April 05, 2010

Danger far from over in Shen Neng 1 Barrier Reef oil spill

A coal ship grounded on the Great Barrier Reef could spill more oil onto the reef if the vessel is refloated too soon. That is the concern of Maritime Safety Queensland who say a hydrostatic plug caused by the pressure of the ocean water is preventing oil escaping from the ship's engine room. This plug may give way if the breach in the tank is not repaired before refloating. “We need to assess the vessel's remaining strength before we consider any salvage options which may be available to us," MSQ general manager Captain Patrick Quirk said.

The 230m-long bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground at Douglas Shoal about 70km east of Great Keppel Island at 5.10pm Queensland time on Saturday. The ship had left the port of Gladstone bound for China with a crew of 23, 65,000 tonnes of coal and 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. The ship was off course about 120km east of Rockhampton and in a protected area, well outside the normal shipping channels. The 150 tonne fuel tank has been ruptured and heavy seas are driving the ship further into the fragile reef area.

Shen Neng 1 owners the Chinese COSCO Group is one of the largest shipping companies in the world with over 500 vessels. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has threatened fines of $1 million for the company and a further $200,000 for the captain for straying into the off-limits area. The owners could also be liable for the multi-million dollar clean up, though as Queensland found out last year in the Pacific Adventurer case, there is an upper limit set by international maritime convention.

In the latest accident, the ship’s captain initially told MSQ no oil had been spilt. The impact, he said, had created one hole in the ship’s lower hull which was 40m away from the nearest oil storage area. The captain said he would try to refloat the ship after midnight. MSQ worked with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to coordinate the emergency response. AMSA airlifted surveyors aboard to assess the condition of the ship. Emergency surveillance aircraft inspected the scene at first light. A long-range helicopter came from Bundaberg to take specialist response personnel to the vessel.

At 2am Sunday, the oil advice to MSQ had changed. Now “there was an unknown amount of oil” in the water, though the media release did not say who provided this advice or how it squared with the captain’s earlier statement about the hole being 40m away from oil storage. The new knowledge kicked off a national oil spill response plan. MSQ asked the GBRMPA for permission to use aerial dispersants on the oil leak. Response crews were activated in Brisbane, Gladstone and Rockhampton. MSQ’s vessel Norfolk was dispatched from Heron Island to provide logistical support.

By daylight on Easter Sunday it was clear from the air there were oil patches in the waters south-east of the ship. MSQ said at 8.30am there was “no major loss of oil” so far. The carrier was aground on a shoal and would need salvage crews to get it off. A light aircraft from Rockhampton arrived at midmorning to spray chemical dispersant on the spilled oil. Early arrival was critical as dispersants are most effective in breaking up heavy oil when deployed within the first one to two days.

A second aircraft arrived midafternoon yesterday to spray what MSQ called “a ‘ribbon’ of oil measuring approximately three kilometres by 100 metres.” MSQ staff reported only seeing small volumes of oil in the water in the vicinity of the ship but its persistent nature meant it could take some time to break apart. Modelling showed oil could possibly wash up around the nearby Shoalwater Bay military area within the next two days, depending on weather.

The most recent MSQ update at 6am today reported salvors were aboard the Shen Neng 1 to begin the salvage process. The main engine room was breached, the main engine damaged and the rudder seriously damaged. With reported 2 metre swells in the area, the ship was still moving on the reef causing further damage. The long term consequences to the fragile reef are yet to be fully felt.

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