Monday, April 12, 2010

Do We Never Learn?

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Approximately one week or so ago, I posted a blog detailing how the Shen Neng 1 had run aground in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef; and, a marine disaster was in the making from the leaking oil. The danger is the cheap, glue-like oil the shipping companies use to power their immense carrier ships.

The Great Barrier Reef along with all its corals, whales, giant clams and other marine life is in the path of a "coal highway" to China that may see shipments jump 67% by 2016. It should be noted here that when the Shen Neng 1 hit the sandbank on April 3, 2010, it was travelling at full speed and carrying 68,000 metric tons of coal and 975 tons of fuel oil.

Trade at Gladstone port in Queensland, Australia where the Shen Neng 1 took on its load may rise to about 140 million tons - mostly coal - by 2016, according to Gladstone Ports Corp. Chief Executive Officer Leo Zussino said in an interview.

“It’s only a matter of time before a serious oil spill occurs unless we have a better system for regulating the traffic,” said Peter Harrison, a professor at Southern Cross University in New South Wales who has studied the impact of oil pollution on coral reefs for three decades. “It’s a difficult place to navigate.”

The Great Barier Reef is a unique microenvironment. It is a breeding ground for humpback whales, contains the world's largest collection of corals, is home to more than 1,500 species of tropical fish; and, is host to more than 200 kinds of sea birds.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has stated that Australia may tighten up onitoring of vessels through the reef in addition to requiring more pilots to guide the ships. However, Bob Brown, senator and head of the Australian Greens Party, said companies are "making a coal highway" out of the reef.

Now, in addition to the coal, Gladstone will be the port of departure for liquified natural gas (LNG) beginning in 2014. It is estimated that LNG vessels leaving the Gladstone port by mid-2016 will be carrying approximately 10,000,000 tons annually of LNG according to the port operator. Most of this gas will be going to Asian markets. Among the companies planning to build LNG terminals at Gladstone are BG Group Plc, Santos Ltd. and Origin Engergy Ltd.

Normally liquified natural gas is an incredibly stable product with only a few risks; however, one of the very few risks is Rapid Phase Transistion (RPT). RPT occurs when cold LNG comes in contact with water.

Shenzhen Energy Transport Co., owners of the Shen Neng 1, said in in an April 8, 2010 statement that the planned route was "entirely within legal waters" and that the Shen Neng 1 was off course when it hit the Douglas Shoals. The shoals are about 100 km (60 mi.) off the northeast coast of the reef. Shenzen Energy Transport Co. was unable to explain why the vessel failed to make a scheduled easterly turn causing it to run aground.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said an initial report on the incident will take about four weeks.

“This case has been a warning, a shot across our bow,” said Harrison at Southern Cross University. He went on to add that the use of pilots who know the reef, which is more than 3,000 km long, should be compulsory for all vessels passing through the area.

The Shen Neng 1 isn’t the first large vessel to collide with the reef. The Doric Chariot ran aground in 2002. The Doric Chariot left the Hay Point port north of Gladstone bound for India according to the Reef Marine Park Authority. Miraculously, he vessel was able to be refloated nine days later without the loss of either fuel or cargo of coal. A report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau shows that while a pilot was aboard the Doric Chariot, he fell asleep.

The Malaysian container ship Bunga Teratai Satu collided with the Sudbury Reef near Fitzroy Island east of Cairns in 2000. No oil was released in this incident.

However, it would appear that the wreck of the Shen Neng 1 may make up for all our previous good luck. David Wachenfeld, the marine park authority's chief scientist, says that as many as 4 tons of fuel has already spilled and been treated with dispersants. He added that a white plume comprised of sand, pulverized coral and rock mixed with toxic paint from the ship's hull had become visible around the stranded vessel.

Accidents on the reef have fallen in the past 10 years, said Gladstone Ports’ Zussino, who is also chairman of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Still, “low risk obviously is not good enough,” he said.

“We’ve got to protect the reef,” Prime Minister Rudd announced on ABC radio. It’s an Australian asset and provides 60,000 tourism jobs, he said.

Jeff Singleton, spokesperson for Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, points out the proposed shipping regulation changes surrounding the reef would have to be approved by the International Maritime Organization.

The number of “major” incidents at the Great Barrier Reef has been limited to three or fewer a year, compared with 10,000 journeys through the area annually, amid improvements in shipping safety measures, said the Barrier Reef’s Wachenfeld. “That’s a pretty damn good safety record, but obviously as shipping increases, the risks increase.”


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