Australian officials warn that the Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger of being further contaminated by oil after a Chinese ship ran aground off Queensland. The vessel is stuck on a sandbar and has already leaked at least two tons of dark sludge into the water.
A frantic clean-up operation is under way where the Chinese-registered coal ship, Shen Neng 1, is aground in an area where commercial shipping is restricted to protect the world's largest coral reef.
About two tons of oil has seeped into the water so far from the damaged vessel, creating a slick up to three kilometers long.
Aircraft have sprayed chemicals in an attempt to disperse the contamination.
There are concerns that the ship, which ran aground Saturday, may break up and spill 950 tons of oil into the sea.
Salvage experts are on board to try to prevent that from happening.
The Queensland state premier, Anna Bligh, says the emergency team will help to minimize the environmental damage.
"They are part of a major salvage team that will now begin what I think will be a very complex and delicate operation to make sure we get this vessel off the reef with as little damage as possible so that we prevent the possibility of any major oil spill," she said. "This could be one of the most complex and difficult salvage operations we have seen - certainly in Queensland maritime history and possibly Australia's," she explained.
The ship was taking coal to China when it ran into a large sand bank. Its owners could face heavy fines because the vessel was sailing through restricted waters.
Conservation groups have long been concerned that freighters travel through the Great Barrier Reef without the help of specially trained marine pilots.
The reef stretches for more than 2,500 kilometers along Australia's northeast coast. It covers an area bigger than the United Kingdom and is largest living structure on earth. It is home to hundreds of thousands of species of marine life, many of which are rare.
Scientists say its health is endangered by the effects of climate change, including warmer ocean temperatures, as well as pollution that runs off from farms.