Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An Update from Bob Brown on the Chinese Oil Spill

On a gorgeous Queensland afternoon, flying out over the Douglas Shoal should be an opportunity to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the Great Barrier Reef.

Alone except for one small vessel, from the air the Shen Neng 1 looks like an innocuous abandoned handbag.

But the vessel is a ticking environmental time-bomb.

Stuck fast, the Chinese coal tanker is poised to spew nearly 1000 tonnes of oil and 65,000 tonnes of coal over ancient coral reefs and pristine coastline.

Depending on weather and the ability of authorities to remove the ship's cargo, we are facing an environmental disaster.

The question of how the vessel came to be up to 30 kms off course, without a pilot, uncovers a broader issue.

The Shen Neng 1 ran aground in what has now been exposed as a known shortcut for shipping.

Premier Anna Bligh has said she will be throwing the book at whoever is responsible, while Kevin Rudd has made a special trip to Rockhampton to view the impending tragedy himself.
However, neither Premier Bligh or the Prime Minister can pass the blame for this accident off on a single captain or even a single company.

Why did multibillion dollar corporations, on both sides of the ocean, refuse to pay $8,000 for a pilot?

The answer is because they did not have to as current regulations do not compel them to.

If the Shen Neng 1 had been required to have a pilot, as is done further north along the Queensland coastline, it would not have been able to travel illegally off course, nor would it have been in such danger of hitting coral outcrops.

The other issue is one of monitoring.

While fishing vessels are required to have satellite tracking, massive coal tankers like the Shen Neng 1 are only monitored on the northern half of the Great Barrier Reef (and even then only by volunteers), not the southern half - despite Queensland Premier Anna Bligh's plans to export more coal and natural gas through southern ports like Gladstone.

It is likely that many have been using this illegal shipping short cut for years, but Australian authorities do not track vessels in this area so we cannot even say for sure how many or how often tankers take this short cut.

For a comparatively tiny amount of money irreplaceable whale breeding grounds, fish habitat and dugong and turtle habitat are now at risk.

Studies of previous accidents shows damage to the Reef occurs through physical damage to the coral substructures and toxic pollution from marine anti-foulant paint, as well as impacts from oil spills.

But we don't know what the impact of dumping 65,000 tonnes of coal onto the Reef would be because the studies have not been done.

Because of the sway the industry has over the government, the Great Barrier Reef has been turned into a coal highway.

Proper regulation, as the Greens have been saying for years is required, could have prevented this accident.

The Greens are calling for a Royal Commission into how this situation could occur. Certainly, the coal industry, should be held to account.

With further plans to expand shipping traffic to export more coal and gas to China, this is an urgent situation that must be addressed immediately.

There is no question that no expense should be spared to get the deadly oil and coal cargo off the Shen Neng 1, and minimise damage to the Reef.

But we also need to ask who is going to pay for the costs of salvaging, cleaning up and investigating this incident.

All ships traversing Australian waters should be required at the very least to have insurance which covers the full cost of any accident which might occur.

An oil spill that occurred last year near Moreton Bay close to Brisbane saw a shortfall of around $6 million. This cost was met by the Queensland Government's increase to the levy for all vessels, penalising all for the actions of irresponsible operators. Until marine pilots and round the clock monitoring and full insurance are compulsory, ships should have to avoid the Reef.

The cost of taking a longer, but safer route further south to avoid the Reef adds only $120,000 to the cost of a trip for these ships. In comparison to the millions of dollars of cargo, this is peanuts.

The greatest irony of this terrible incident is that the burning of coal is the biggest threat of all to the Great Barrier Reef, through climate change and ocean acidification which is already causing regular bleaching events.
- Bob Brown with ABC: The Drum Unleashed

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