Oil leaked into the ocean after the Chinese cargo ship Shen Neng 1 ran aground in a protected area of the Great Barrier Reef. The ship contains 65,000 tonnes of coal and could break apart if the weather worsens. Is this set to be one of Australia’s worst environmental disasters, or is it just another day’s work for the salvage workers? Crikey spoke to Master Mariner Richard Morris to find out.

How much damage could this ship cause to the Barrier Reef?

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“Not a lot really, because it’s not an oil tanker. It will cause a little bit,” Morris said.

If it were an oil tanker of the same size, it would be carrying more than 100,000 cubic metres of oil. Since it’s a coal tanker, the only oil on board is the oil used to fuel the ship. This is around 3,000 cubic metres, comparatively not that much, and it isn’t expected to all leak out.

The main damage might come if the ship did break up. “I don’t think it will,” Morris said. “The salvage master, these guys are worth their weight in gold. They’ll get it off, you watch.”

Dispersant was sprayed onto the oil slick to break it up. How does that work?

It’s still bad for the environment, but when only a small amount of oil leaks out of a ship, it floats to the surface of the ocean and can be dispersed. The dispersant is like a detergent. It breaks down the oil, in a similar way to washing your hands, and dissolves it over time. It’s not clear how long it will take to dissolve, particularly since these ships commonly use the lowest grade of oil, heavy fuel oil, which is like sludge or tar.

Did the ship veer off course or was it taking a shortcut?

“I bet you they were taking a short cut and they just weren’t on the ball,” says Morris. “This is inexcusable, what’s happened.”

Coal tankers, the equivalent of trucks, are the lowest level of ship operation with the lowest paid crew. A lot of these companies are based in Asia and try to operate as cheaply as possible. So the captain was under commercial pressure from his owner, and tried to save a little bit of fuel, which compromised the safety of the ship, the crew and the reef, Morris said.

Authorities are saying fatigue could have played a part. Is this common?

“There’s no excuse for fatigue,” Morris said. “Fatigue has to be managed.” The crew would include a captain as well as first, second and third officers, which means there’s time for sleep. This wasn’t a result of engine failure or a storm, Morris said, but “sheer negligence, most likely stemming from commercial pressures”.

What do Australian authorities need to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

It should be mandatory for all commercial ships over 50 metres long to have a pilot on board when they’re between the north of Fraser Island and Torres Strait, Morris said. They should be banned from that area if they don’t have a pilot. Or, they could be banned from going through the reef altogether, and could instead navigate away from the reef, east of Papua New Guinea.

“Why should we allow big ships like this, that don’t have to be there, to be near the Barrier Reef?” Morris asked. “We’re risking our heritage, which is irreplaceable.”

How is the ship being removed from the reef?

A salvage company has arrived on the site with tugs and equipment. They’ll make an assessment to see if they can block the holes in the ship with concrete so that it will be able to float again. They will also use a barge with a crane to take some coal out of the ship and make it lighter. The concern is that a storm may come while the barge is being filled, which could cause it to hit the rocks.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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