BRISBANE, Australia - A salvage team could take weeks to remove a grounded Chinese coal ship from the Great Barrier Reef, where it is leaking oil in a pristine marine environment, an Australian state premier said Monday.
The Shen Neng 1 ran aground late Saturday on Douglas Shoals, a favorite haunt for recreational fishing east of the Great Keppel Island tourist resort. The shoals - off the coast of Queensland state in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park - are in a protected part of the reef where shipping is restricted by environmental law.
Authorities fear an oil spill will damage the world's largest coral reef off northeast Australia.
Aircraft sprayed chemical dispersants Sunday in an effort to break up an oil slick about 2 miles long and 100 yards wide.
The ship strayed nine miles outside the shipping lane and hit the reef at full speed.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said a salvage team had reached the 755-foot ship Monday and were trying to stabilize it.
A police boat also was standing by to rescue the 23 crew members if the ship broke apart.
"According to the safety experts who have briefed me, it could take some weeks," Bligh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
"It's in such a delicate part of the reef and the ship is in such a badly damaged state, managing this process will require all the specialist expertise we can bring to bear," she added.
She said the ship's owner could be fined up to $920,000 for straying from a shipping lane used by 6,000 cargo ships each year.
"This is a very delicate part of one of the most precious marine environments on earth and there are safe authorized shipping channels and that's where this ship should have been," Bligh said.
Authorities fear the ship will break apart during the salvage operation or spill more of its 1,000 tons load of heavy fuel oil.
Marine Safety Queensland said in a statement a tug boat was at the site Monday trying to stabilize the ship and a second tug was due to arrive this afternoon.
The government agency's general manager Patrick Quirk said the initial damage report was that the main engine room was breached, the main engine damaged and the rudder seriously damaged.
The bulk carrier was taking about 72,000 tons of coal to China and ran aground within hours of leaving the Queensland port of Gladstone.