BRISBANE, Australia – BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Salvage crews at a damaged coal carrier stuck on Australia's Great Barrier Reef began pumping fuel oil Friday from the stricken vessel onto another barge to carry it away and prevent it from leaking onto the delicate reef.
Patrick Quirk, general manager of Maritime Safety Queensland, said inflatable booms were in place around the vessels to trap and contain any oil that may spill during the procedure.
"This is a delicate operation that will take days, not hours," Quirk said in a statement. "We're not going to rush into this operation. We want to manage the risk and manage it closely."
The Shen Neng 1 had nearly 1,000 tons (950 metric tons) of heavy fuel oil on board when it crashed full speed onto Douglas Shoal, a protected area of the world's largest coral reef. Coral shredded one part of the ship, and three or four tons of oil leaked from a ruptured fuel tank. That oil was dispersed by chemical sprays and is believed to have caused little or no damage. Reef experts will assess damages to the area after the ship is gone.
Officials must remove the remaining oil in order to safely refloat the Chinese ship and prevent any further spillage.
Fuel from the stricken Chinese coal carrier will be pumped onto the Larcom bunker barge, which can carry up to 1,500 tons of oil.
Around 250 people are on standby in case oil reaches the coast, but that is now considered unlikely.
Maritime authorities are investigating how the accident occurred, and the Queensland government said the ship's owners would be responsible for paying the clean-up and salvage costs.
The owners, Shenzen Energy Transport, said Friday that they were cooperating with the investigation. They said the ship had been traveling through a legal channel when it inexplicably failed to turn eastward to avoid Douglas Shoal.
Hu Wei, chief of shipping and development, said the company and ship's crew were working with the salvage crews to ensure an environmentally safe refloating of the ship.
"Shenzhen Energy Transport recognizes the importance of the Great Barrier Reef and is deeply concerned to avoid endangering lives or damaging the environment," Hu said in a statement.
The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site because of its gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of marine species.
The accident occurred in the southern tip of the reef, which is not the main tourism hub.