On Saturday April 3, a fully laden bulk carrier ran aground on Douglas Shoal off Rockhampton, Queensland, producing an oil spill threatening the Great Barrier Reef. The Shen Neng 1, carrying about 65,000 tonnes of coal to China, leaked about two tonnes of oil onto the reef before being contained.
The ship may take weeks to be moved, and the risk remains that the rest of its 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil may escape if the ship breaks up due to its continual grinding on the reef.
This incident follows two major oil spills off the Australian coast in 2009. In March, 30 tonnes of heavy oil was spilled near Moreton Island and the southern area of the Sunshine Coast. A preventable oil leak continued for 10 weeks at the West Atlas oil rig in the Timor Sea in late 2009. At least 3600 tonnes of oil were estimated to have escaped, covering 15,000 square kilometres of sea.
On April 6, the ABC said Greens leader Bob Brown accused bulk carriers of using the pristine waters of the Great Barrier Reef as a "coal highway" and said authorities were turning a blind eye to the problem.
"Speculation is growing that a large number of these huge ships, including oil containers, move illegally through this lane near the Douglas Shoal, and nothing's been done about it by the authorities", Brown said.
Maritime Safety Queensland general manager Patrick Quirk has admitted that this practice is not uncommon and is not properly monitored. Local fisherpeople have reported that ships regularly take shortcuts through the reef.
"I do not doubt what the fishermen are telling us", he told the ABC. "We have thousands and thousands of vessel movements on the Queensland coast every year."
The emergency clean-up response has been swift, as key tourist sites are under threat. Tourism on the Great Barrier Reef produces an estimated annual profit of $6 billion. The spill is only 70 kilometres east of tourist resorts on Great Keppel Island.
The ship's Chinese owners have borne the brunt of the blame in the media. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has threatened "we will bring into account those who are responsible", while Queensland Premier Anna Bligh called for the federal government to "throw the book at them".
Playing on anti-Chinese sentiment, Rudd and Bligh have attempted to deflect attention from the federal and Queensland governments' enthusiastic facilitation of coal industry expansion.
Ewan Saunders, Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Brisbane in the upcoming federal election and activist in the Community Climate Network Queensland, said the Shen Neng 1 grounding must be seen as yet another symptom of the coal industry's environmental destructiveness.
"The coal companies, and the Australian and Queensland governments, need to acknowledge their culpability in this crash. Their insane drive to increase coal mining and export means maritime accidents such as this become inevitable.
"The endless number of huge ships, especially coal transports, right near the Great Barrier Reef, a priceless natural treasure, is a disaster just waiting to happen."
"The Socialist Alliance continues to call on the Rudd and Bligh governments to immediately begin phasing out Australia's coal industry.
"The extreme danger this kind of shipping poses to the Barrier Reef adds to the need to end reliance on coal as a source of power, and immediately begin a radical transition to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power."