Efforts underway to contain reef damage
Travel Babel seems to have been the first travel blog to report on the Chinese-flagged coal carrier “Shen Neng 1” that went 9 miles off-course and plowed into the coral reefs of Keppler Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef. The resultant oil spill continues to threaten marine life in a maritime protection area that also happens to be one of the world’s great scuba diving destinations. Since then, the disaster has caught some world attention, with television news and wire service reports updating the situation and the Australian government response. The photo at right was released by Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and you can see a SkyNews report on YouTube.
The threat to the reef remains worrisome. According to an Associated Press report released on Tuesday evening, local time, “A stranded Chinese coal ship leaking oil onto Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is an environmental time bomb with the potential to devastate large protected areas of the reef, activists said on Monday.” Reuters quoted Llewellyn, director of conservation for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Australia, who called the “was a “ticking environmental time bomb.”
The reef, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, the ship carried some 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel to run its engines. Shipping companies like this (relatively) cheap, low-grade fuel, which is very viscous, and and must be heated before injected into engines. When it ends up in the ocean, this gooey, sludge-like oil coats birds, wildlife, corals, rocks and sandy beaches and is extremely difficult to clean up.
An Environmental Crisis Waiting to Happen — and It Did
“We’ve always said the vessel is up in an area it shouldn’t be in the first place,” Marine Safety Queensland general manager Patrick Quirk told the media. “How it got to that to that position will be the subject of a detailed investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Board.” He added ships sometimes used a shortcut through the reef, a practice that will be reviewed by the federal government. Six thousand ships a year travel the marine lanes between the east coast of Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. Numerous conservation groups have for years been concerned that bulk carriers are permitted to travel through the reef without a specialized marine pilot. The government has thus far said pilots are not necessary when ships pass protected areas because they are banned there — until they stray off-course, nine miles off-course, in the case of the “Shen Neng 1.” The government might now change its tune.
At last report, two powerful tugs were on the scene, attempting to stabilize the ship while salvage crews assessed the situation. A boom is in place around the stranded ship to contain the oil spill. Australian officials say the “Shen Neng I” is owned by belongs to the Shenzhen Energy Group, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (acronym, COSCO) — the country’s largest shipping company. COSCO could be fined up to 1 million Australian dollars (US$920,000) — a pittance in view of the damage.
COSCO’s History of Oil Spills
This Australian incident is COSCO’s third major foul-up in less than three years. In November 2007, the “Cosco Busan” hit one of San Francisco Bay Bridge supports and spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, contaminating beaches, killing wildlife and floating into the Pacific Ocean. Skipper John Cota received a 10-month jail sentence for negligence. I don’t know whether COSCO was also fined, but cleanup reported cost $100 million.
On July 31, 2009,, “Full City,” a Panamanian-flagged ship owned by COSCO, suffered engine failure, ran aground during a storm and spilled some 200 tons of oil that eventually spread 100 miles in an area of wildlife sanctuaries and popular beaches. Pollution effects could linger for a decade. According to a British report on the fiasco, “In the days following the disaster, one of Norway’s worst, thousands of birds said to be part of the Lille Sastein bird sanctuary and which were covered in oil, were considered beyond saving and had to be shot. Hundreds more are being cleaned up by volunteers along the coastline.” The captain, whose name and ultimate fate I don’t know, was arrested for a failure to alert authorities that his ship was in trouble, but he was released without bail.
COSCO has been notably silent about this latest disaster, but on April 1, it issued the following press release, which seems to indicate that money and ROI and not responsbility are all that matter to this state-owned compay:
“COSCO Sustainable Development Report 2008, among the 44 sustainable reports, was praised as ‘Notable’ report, which was conveyed in the letter to Capt. Wei Jiafu, President and CEO of COSCO Group from Mr. Georg Kell, Executive Director of UN Global Compact Office on March 3rd, 2010. COSCO Group is the only selected Chinese company this year and only Asian company whose sustainability report is deemed ‘Notable’ for four years in a roll [stet]. The report analysis was conducted by a coalition of global investors from 13 countries managing over US$ 2.1 trillion of assets, and they are all signatories to the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative to help companies that under United Nations Global Compact better corporate reporting on environmental, social and corporate governance activities.”