Leaking oil poses threat to Great Barrier Reef

Fears of environmental disaster after Chinese vessel that strayed outside shipping lane runs aground

A coal-carrying ship that strayed outside a shipping lane and ran aground in protected waters was leaking oil on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and was in danger of breaking apart, officials said last night. The Chinese Shen Neng 1 ran aground late on Saturday on Douglas Shoals, a favourite pristine haunt for recreational fishing east of the Great Keppel Island tourist resort.

The shoals – off the coast of Queensland state in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – are in a protected part of the reef where shipping is restricted by environmental law. Authorities fear an oil spill will damage the world's largest coral reef, which is off north-east Australia and listed as a World Heritage site. The ship hit the reef at full speed, nine miles outside the shipping lane, State Premier Anna Bligh said. A police boat was standing by to remove the 23 crew if the ship broke apart.

Patches of oil were seen nearby early yesterday, but Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) reported no major loss from the 950 tons of oil on board. "We are now very worried we might see further oil discharged from this ship," Ms Bligh said.

Patrick Quirk, the general manager of MSQ, said the vessel was badly damaged on its port side. "We are still very concerned about the ship," he said. "It is in danger of actually breaking into a number of parts." A salvage contract had been signed, but the operation would be difficult and assessing the damage to the ship is expected to take a week. Ms Bligh said she feared the salvage operation could spill more oil, which could reach the mainland coast within two days. Local emergency crews have been put on standby to clean up any oil that reaches mainland beaches.

The Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett said authorities had been working through the night to determine what risks the ship posed to the environment. "The government is very conscious of the importance of the Great Barrier Reef environment and ensuring that impacts on its ecology are effectively managed," he said.

The 230-metre bulk carrier was carrying about 65,000 tons of coal to China and ran aground within hours of leaving the Queensland port of Gladstone. Conservationists have expressed outrage that bulk carriers can travel through the reef without a marine pilot with local expertise to guide them. "The state government is being blinded by royalties and their shortsightedness will go down in history as killing the reef," said Larissa Waters, spokeswoman for the Queensland Greens.

Ms Bligh said the question of when ships should require a marine pilot on the reef was under review because of the increase in freight traffic that will travel near it following the signing of new gas and coal export contracts to China. She said a separate inquiry would determine how the Shen Neng 1 came to stray from its shipping lane.