CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian salvage teams have refloated a Chinese coal ship which ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, with the ship’s owner likely to face heavy fines despite the avoidance of an environmental disaster.
Chinese bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 was fully loaded and traveling at full speed on Saturday when it struck the Douglas Shoal, toward the southern end of the protected reef, which covers 346,000 sq km (133,600 sq miles) off the northeast coast.
The ship, which leaked around two tons of heavy fuel oil, was refloated at high tide on Monday night and towed to safe anchorage near Great Keppel Island, a tourist resort, for a damage inspection.
“Until we get divers down you can’t be totally certain how damaged this thing is underneath,” said Queensland state Transport Minister Rachel Nolan on Tuesday.
The stranded ship belongs to the Shenzhen Energy Group, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company, better known by its acronym COSCO.
COSCO could face fines and costs of up to A$23 million dollars ($21.3 million) over the incident, according to international maritime law experts, while the vessel’s captain could be handed an individual penalty of up to A$250,000.
“Make no mistake, this company will pay a very substantial price for this incident,” Nolan told Australian radio. “Their ship was off course in very environmentally sensitive areas and they will pay the price.”
Police have launched an investigation into the ship’s grounding on the request of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which manages the reef marine reserve.
Park chairman Russell Reichelt said toxic anti-fouling paint from the coal carrier’s hull was killing coral and the ship had torn a kilometer-long gash in the reef.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd flagged tougher shipping laws as resource exports from Queensland state intensify. The Queensland state government has already moved to introduce stronger penalties for polluting ships.
Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Mark Bendeich