On 3rd April 2010, a Chinese cargo ship transporting 65,000 tonnes of coal, the Shen Neng 1, ran aground on Douglas Shoal near the Great Barrier Reef (Australia). This area is a popular tourism site reputed for its exceptional marine biodiversity. The grounding ruptured a fuel tank, from which 3 tonnes of fuel oil escaped. The spill was treated with dispersants.
The ship was over 30 km off course when it grounding 70 km off the coast of Queensland. Australia claimed compensation following this accident which could have caused a major disaster in one of the world’s most important and fragile ecological sites, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The Transport Safety Bureau confirmed that the ship had taken an illegal shortcut. Furthermore, the crew failed to reset the GPS and the ship therefore missed the passage it should have taken. To make matters worse, the quartermaster is believed to have been dozing when steering the vessel.
The ship was refloated on 12 April to be towed to the Port of Rockhampton with its cargo of coal still onboard. The operation was conducted after having pumped out the 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil remaining in the bunker tanks.
Dispersants were sprayed by planes to treat the oil slick. Booms were deployed around the ship to stop the pollution from spreading. No leaks were reported when the Shen Neng 1 was refloated from the shoal, where it had been embedded for a week.
An ecological disaster was narrowly averted, despite considerable damage inflicted by the 3 tonnes of oil spilt at sea. A slick 3 km long by 250 m wide reached an island where birds and turtles were nesting. Furthermore, paint from the hull of the Shen Neng 1 proved to be toxic as it killed corals fostering very rich marine flora and fauna.
The Australian Government took legal action against the Chinese bulk carrier and stated its desire to redefine the shipping regulations in this protected area. They called for pilots who know the reef to be compulsory onboard each ship and for a control system identical to that used for air traffic control. Upon request by the Queensland Government, the federal parliament introduced a new law on the fines imposed upon shipowners (between 1 and 7 million euros). This sum is in addition to the 17 million euros spent on salvage and clean-up operations.
The South Korean captain was condemned by the Australian courts to a fine of 70,000 Australian dollars.
What has changed
This accident revives the question of shipping control in this sensitive area which stretches over more than 345,000 km² and represents a valuable nature reserve harbouring 400 species of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 species of molluscs.
Name: Shen Neng 1
Accident area : Great Barrier Reef, 70 km east of Great Keppel Island
Cause of spill : grounding
Products transported : coal + fuel oil
Quantities transported : 65,000 tonnes of coal + 975 tonnes of fuel oil
Type of pollutants : coal + fuel oil + hull paint
Quantity spilled : 3 tonnes of fuel oil
Ship type : bulk carrier
Date built : 1993
Length : 230 m
Flag : Chinese
Owner : Shenzhen Energy Transport
Shipowner : Cosco
Last update: 18 March 2011