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Page last updated at 11:41 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 12:41 UK

Australia to begin removing oil from Barrier Reef ship

The Shen Neng 1 and a tug boat (6 April 2010)
Officials want to know how the ship ended up in the restricted area

Australian maritime authorities are preparing to remove tonnes of heavy fuel oil from a Chinese ship which is stranded on the Great Barrier Reef.

A floating boom has been put around the Shen Neng 1 to contain oil which has already leaked from its damaged hull.

The ship is now stable and chemicals have been used to disperse the fuel.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has again described the grounding as "outrageous" and said he could consider tightening shipping rules in the protected area.

The Shen Neng 1, carrying 950 tonnes of oil, ran aground 70km (43 miles) off the east coast of Great Keppel Island on 4 April.

It was carrying about 65,000 tonnes of coal to China from the Queensland port of Gladstone.

An initial small slick was broken up by chemical dispersants while booms are being deployed to protect the surrounding area in case of further leaks.

Two tug boats are holding the ship in place to prevent further damage to the hull by the surrounding coral. Some oil has already been moved from damaged areas of the ship to more secure tanks.

"This is actually a delicate operation and we won't be rushing it," said Patrick Quirk of Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ).

"Every bit of oil in the water risks the marine environment and the shoreline."

Official anger

The Australian authorities have launched an investigation into how the bulk carrier ended up stranded on the delicate coral of the Barrier Reef.

On Tuesday, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa) said the crew had filed a shipping plan indicating they intended to take the route between Douglas Island and the Capricorn Islands, ABC News reported.

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Kevin Rudd said the practical challenge was to 'deal with the situation now'

But an Amsa spokeswoman said that "somewhere along the way something went wrong" and the ship entered a restricted area.

On Wednesday, Mr Rudd again showed his anger over the incident.

"It's still for me outrageous that this Chinese ship in broad daylight could be 12km off course in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef," he told reporters.

Mr Rudd said an investigation would determine how the grounding happened, who was responsible and what penalties should apply.

He said changes may need to be made to how shipping through the Barrier Reef is controlled, through the monitoring of ships or the introduction of a vessel tracking system.

'Serious'

The Shen Neng's Chinese crew have remained on board during the operation and its captain, Wang Jichang, has been criticised in Australia for downplaying the scale of the incident.

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With the resources sector back at full throttle, has Australia got the maritime policies in place which balance the needs of the economy and the needs of the environment?

Brisbane's Courier Mail newspaper quoted the city's Chinese Consul-General Ren Gongping as saying the leakage was "not very serious so far".

Mr Ren told the paper he had spoken to Capt Wang and his main concern was a lack of food and water for his crew, as the salvage teams were using up their supplies.

Capt Wang had not seen any oil in the sea, Mr Ren said.

Queensland State Premier Anna Bligh said she was disappointed by the comments.

"If the Chinese crew are under any illusions that this is a minor incident, I'm sure that when they get off the boat and see what the world has to say they'll understand a bit more clearly just how serious this is," she said.

Map of Queensland showing where ship is stranded

Ms Bligh has said the ship's owners, the Shenzhen Energy Group, could be fined up to A$1m ($920,000) over the incident.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest reef system and extends for more than 2,500km.

Celebrated as the world's largest living organism, it is already feared under threat from climate change.



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