SYDNEYÂ — Australian authorities on Monday refloated a huge Chinese ship that had been stranded on the Great Barrier Reef for more than a week after running aground, averting a potential environmental crisis.
Emergency workers successfully moved the 230-metre (750-foot) Shen Neng 1 coal carrier apparently without adding to the two-tonne oil spill that spread a three-kilometre (two-mile) slick after the ship crashed on April 3.
“They have moved it to a position off the shoal. It has been stabilised and will probably be floating there for another hour,” a Maritime Safety Queensland spokesman told national news agency AAP.
The accident, described as “outrageous” by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, evoked anger in Australia and raised questions about the environmental impact of the country’s mineral exports boom.
The giant ship, still carrying 68,000 tonnes of China-bound coal, was due to be towed to a more sheltered point before a stormy weather front brings high winds and heavy seas to Australia’s northeast coast on Tuesday.
Emergency workers had pumped nearly 1,000 tonnes of fuel from the vessel before the approaching storm forced them to rush the after-dark refloating.
Australia’s transport minister has accused the ship’s crew of taking an illegal route at the heritage-listed reef, by far the world’s biggest, and said prosecutors would be “throwing the book” at those responsible.
The ship strayed about 15 nautical miles from the recognised shipping lane before ploughing into Douglas Shoal at full speed, sustaining heavy damage.
Australian officials immediately promised to investigate allegations that ships were taking short-cuts through the giant reef, which sprawls along 1,800 miles of coast and is a major tourist attraction.
On Monday, three crew of another large carrier appeared in court on charges of entering a restricted part of the reef without permission, and were bailed to reappear on Friday.
South Korean Gang Chun Han, 63, master of the Panama-flagged MV Mimosa, and Vietnam’s Tran Tan Thanh and Nguyen Van Sang are facing maximum fines of 225,000 dollars (205,000 US).
Conservationists say the incidents highlight the risk to Australia’s environment posed by rocketing resources exports to Asia, which are fuelling a strong recovery from the global financial crisis.
The reef, which is visible from space and counted as one of the world’s foremost ecological treasures, has already come under pressure from rising sea temperatures and pollution.
The government of the northeastern state of Queensland on Monday announced dramatically increased penalties for oil spills on the Great Barrier Reef, including fines of up to 10 million dollars.
The accident comes after a ruptured cargo ship leaked 270,000 litres (70,000 gallons) onto Queensland beaches last March. In August, a well platform caught fire and dumped 28,000 barrels of oil into the seas off northern Australia.