Image Source: Screen capture from video.

Right now, a Chinese coal ship is stranded in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Oil is slowly leaking out of the ship into the reef, which may cause a lot of damage to large areas of the protected reef.

The ship (Shen Neng I) belongs to the Shenzhen Energy Group—a subsidiary of COSCO (China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company). Last year, COSCO was tied to a spill in Norway and it was also linked to a 2007 spill in San Francisco Bay. Both incidents caused damage to environmentally sensitive areas. WWF-Australia director of conservation, Gilly Llewellyn, commented:

“We are seeing a concerning pattern potentially associated with this company.”

Currently, the ship holds 975 tons of fuel oil and only a small amount of that has leaked thus far. Unfortunately, this type of oil is rather sticky and known to cause much damage to marine life, including: coral, turtles, birds, and dugongs. The ship also has a damaged engine and rudder, so it is unable to be moved off the shoal without assistance. Svitzer, an international salvage firm, has attempted to use tugs to stabilize the Shen Neng I, but it hasn’t been working that well.

Rescue officials expect the salvaging of the ship (which was traveling at full speed and off course) will take weeks to complete. However, officials and environmentalists also fear that the ship might break apart. If it does, Llewellyn claims that “we would potentially be looking at an environmental disaster. It would be an extremely large spill.”

Legal action will most likely be taken against the ship owners. In fact, Anna Bligh, state premier of Queensland, called for it already. Bligh stated that the owners could face fines up to $1 million Australian Dollars ($920,000 USD) and the captain could be slapped with a fine up to $220,000 Australian Dollars ($202,645 USD). Investigations are currently being conducted by AMSA (the Australian Maritime Safety Authority) and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Ocean campaigner, Chris Smyth, of the Australian Conservation Foundation expects an estimation of the damage scale within the next few days. Worst case scenario, he figures the oil will reach Australia’s protected mainland.

More information will be reported as it happens. You can check out video footage of the spill here.