The process of unloading coal from the (inevitably “crippled”) coal carrier Shen Neng is continuing slowly at Hervey Bay, after the ship was moved again over the weekend, this time in closer to Fraser Island to protect it and the vessels unloading it.

The ship ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef at Easter, inflicting significant damage on the Douglas Shoal, in about the most blatant symbol possible of what Australia’s addiction to coal will do to national icons such as the reef.

The charging of the Chinese crew of a Chinese-flagged vessel in relation to the grounding has enabled politicians and the media to pretend the incident is all about foreigners doing the wrong thing by Australia and its great natural heritage. Instead, this is primarily about a nation addicted to coal exports and willing to do whatever is necessary to grow them.

The antics accompanying efforts to get the vessel out of Australian waters since then have shone a light on the clash between Queensland’s obsessive determination to keep pumping out coal exports and not merely environmental concerns but the needs of larger industries such as tourism, which in the Great Barrier Reef region employs 63,000 people.

The Shen Neng was originally to be taken to the port of Gladstone.  It lay anchored outside the port for more than a week before the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Maritime Safety Queensland decided it should wasn’t safe to take it into the port and instead it should be moved over 200 kilometres to the south off Hervey Bay, where it will have its 65,000 tonnes of coal offloaded.

That put it right in the middle of the pristine Great Sandy Marine Park, alarming local conservationists and tourism operators who only found out about the decision by accident on May 7.

Conservationists had claimed that the reason it wasn’t taken into Gladstone was not due to safety concerns, but out of fears that the vessel would sink, potentially blocking access from Gladstone and slowing other coal carriers leaving the port. The vessel has been taking on 10 tonnes of water a day.  But this was dismissed by authorities. MSA general manager Patrick Quirk insisted the vessel was structurally sound. A rather dinky animation was produced by MSQ showing how the operation to remove the coal at Hervey Bay would proceed without problem, leaving the vessel free to sail away.

But Quirk admitted last Tuesday “this ship’s got nothing left — she’s on the bones of her arse in terms of having been damaged”. Authorities slapped a two nautical mile exclusion zone around the vessel to prevent Greenpeace and concerned locals from trying to find out more about the vessel’s condition. According to people who saw the vessel on the weekend, it is now sitting perilously low in the water.

Quirk said last week that if the vessel did sink, the environmental impact of sending tens of thousands of tonnes of coal to the bottom of a pristine marine park would be “minimal”. What he didn’t say was that the impact in Gladstone Harbour would be significantly greater — economically, that is.

The intersection of the coal industry and the Queensland environment is of growing concern in the region. At the very end of last year, the Queensland Conservation Council wrote to environment minister Peter Garrett requesting a strategic assessment of the impact of “extractive industries” in the region around Bowen under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Garrett replied in March that while the Commonwealth wanted to pursue such an assessment, the Queensland government had blocked it.

Based on statistics furnished by the Queensland government itself and pulled together by Greenpeace, there are presently port expansion plans that would increase coal loading capacity from 214 million tonnes a year to 424 million tonnes a year by 2020.  This will mean a 100-200% increase in coal-carrying vessels such as the Shen Neng, nearly all of which would be moving through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area.

You can count on the Shen Neng debacle being repeated.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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