Chinese ship captain, officer arrested by Australian police for damages to Great Barrier Reef

By Kristen Gelineau, AP
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2 from ship that smashed Australian reef arrested

SYDNEY — Australian police arrested a Chinese ship captain and officer Wednesday and charged them with damaging the Great Barrier Reef, more than a week after their coal carrier ran aground and tore a two-mile (three-kilometer) gash in the protected area.

The 755-foot (230-meter) Shen Neng 1 veered into protected waters and slammed into the reef on April 3, ripping a huge scar in the coral and possibly smearing it with toxic paint in damages that experts have said could take 20 years to heal.

The Australian Federal Police said the Shen Neng 1’s master and the chief officer on watch during the accident would appear in court Thursday.

The 47-year-old master of the vessel was charged with liability for the vessel causing damage in a marine park, an offense which carries a maximum 55,000 Australian dollar ($51,200) fine. The 44-year-old chief officer is charged with being in charge of the vessel when it caused the damage, and faces up to three years in prison and/or a fine of up to AU$220,000.

“Investigations showed that the Shen Neng 1 failed to turn at a waypoint required by the intended course of the ship,” the police said in a statement.

The arrests follow a joint investigation conducted by the police, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The ship was successfully lifted off the reef Monday after crews spent three days pumping fuel to lighten it. Salvage crews later towed it to an anchorage area near Great Keppel Island, 45 miles (70 kilometers) away. Its refloating left a scar 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) long and up to 820 feet (250 meters) wide.

“There is more damage to this reef than I have ever seen in any previous Great Barrier Reef groundings,” Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chief scientist David Wachenfeld said Tuesday.

Most of the oil that first leaked from the hull was quickly dispersed by chemical sprays and is believed to have caused little or no damage.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site because of its gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of marine species. The accident occurred in the southern tip of the reef, which is not the main tourism hub.

The reef was hit particularly badly because the vessel did not stay in one place once it grounded, Wachenfeld said. Instead, tides and currents pushed it along the reef, crushing and smearing potentially toxic paint onto coral and plants, he said.

In some areas, “all marine life has been completely flattened and the structure of the shoal has been pulverized by the weight of the vessel,” Wachenfeld said.

Even if severe toxic contamination is not found at the site, initial assessments by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority indicate it could take 20 years for the coral reef to recover, Wachenfeld said.

The ship’s owners, Shenzen Energy Transport, said last week they were cooperating with the investigation.

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