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Focus on Cost After Disaster Averted on Australia's Great Barrier Reef

  • Phil Mercer

A delicate salvage operation continues onboard a Chinese coal ship that ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Australian officials say the cost of the accident is likely to run into the tens of millions of dollars. The Shen Neng 1 has leaked a small amount of oil into the ocean and more than 950 tons of oil is now being carefully removed from the vessel to prevent more environmental damage.

The Shen Neng 1 hit a sandbank on the Great Barrier Reef fully loaded and at full speed a week ago. About two tons of oil seeped into the pristine waters and salvage crews have been working to offload 950 tons from the ship's fuel tanks.

So far the operation has gone well, with large quantities of oil safely transferred to barges while the stricken freighter is stabilized by tug boats near Great Keppel Island, off the Queensland coast.

Attention has now turned to who will pay for the salvage effort, which is likely to cost many millions of dollars.

The Queensland state government insists that the owners of the Chinese coal carrier must pay every cent of the recovery bill.

Professor Nick Gaskell, an international maritime law expert at the University of Queensland, says global agreements will allow Australian authorities to recoup some of the expense.

"The good news is that Australia joined an international convention last year called the Bunker Pollution Convention," noted Professor Gaskell. "This allows states and others to claim compensation where you've got leakage of fuel oil carried aboard ordinary merchant ships. The Bunker Pollution Convention allows states to claim from the owners and the operators of the ship without having to prove fault."

However, the pollution convention also sets maximum amounts for which ship owners are liable. The exact amounts are not yet known.

Australian police have launched a criminal investigation into the accident. The inquiry will try to establish why the Shen Neng 1 was several kilometers off course and sailing through protected waters when it ran aground.

Conservationists say foreign freighters often take illegal short-cuts through the Great Barrier Reef to save time and money.

The region off Australia's northeast coast is the world's largest expanse of coral and attracts more than two million visitors every year.

Scientists say that although the reef is immensely resilient, it is threatened by the effects of climate change and pollution.