SYDNEY -- Australian authorities refloated a huge Chinese ship on Monday that had been stranded on the Great Barrier Reef for over a week after running aground, averting a potential environmental crisis.
Emergency workers successfully moved the 750-foot Shen Neng 1 coal carrier without adding to the two-ton oil spill that spread a two-mile slick after the ship crashed on April 3.
The general manager of Marine Safety Queensland, Patrick Quirk, confirmed that no more oil had been lost and said the ship was being towed to an area east of Great Keppel Island, Australian news agency AAP reported.
"The refloat was a success. Salvors spent an hour and a half assessing the vessel's stability and watching for any evidence of further oil spills," he said. "Our intention has always been to keep oil loss to a minimum so we could take it to safe anchorage."
Emergency workers had pumped most of the 970 tons of heavy fuel oil from the vessel before they were forced to rush the after-dark refloating due to approaching stormy weather and high seas. Once the ship has been safely anchored, divers will inspect its hull so that a decision can be made on its future movement, Quirk said.
Australia's transport minister has accused the ship's crew of taking an illegal route at the heritage-listed Great Barrier 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 recognized shipping lane before ploughing into Douglas Shoal at full speed, sustaining heavy damage.
Australian officials immediately promised to investigate allegations that ships were taking shortcuts through the giant reef, which sprawls along 1,800 miles of coast and is a major tourist attraction.
On Monday, three crew members from 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, the 63-year-old master of the Panama-flagged MV Mimosa, and Vietnam's Tran Tan Thanh and Nguyen Van Sang face maximum fines of $205,000.
Conservationists say the incidents highlight the risk to Australia's environment posed by rocketing resource exports to Asia, which are fuelling a strong recovery from the global financial crisis.
The reef, which is visible from space and is 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.
The accident comes after a ruptured cargo ship leaked 70,000 gallons onto Queensland beaches last March. In August, a well platform caught fire, dumping 28,000 barrels of oil into the seas off northern Australia.
-- Agence-France Presse
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