The Shen Neng 1.
The Shen Neng 1.

Plan to vacuum reef will 'kill' tonnes of marine life

A LARGE swathe of Great Barrier Reef marine life will die if the Australian Government goes ahead with its preferred plan to fix a section of the natural wonder damaged by a Chinese ship six years ago.

The Federal Court on Wednesday heard the government wants to "vacuum" 132,705 tonnes of toxic-chemical laced sediment from 50 hectares of the reef, destroying every living organism within the debris.

The Commonwealth is suing Shenzen Energy Transport Co in the Federal Court for $120m.

The government claims it will cost this much to fix the damage caused by Shenzen's 71,000-tonne bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 when it slammed into the Douglas Shoal, 100km off Gladstone and 120k from Rockhampton, in April, 2010.

When the ship strayed about 10km out of the shipping lanes and onto the shoal, it a left a 3km scar on the reef, leaked four tonnes of oil into the ocean and dislodged algal growth.

But the government argues the most significant damage happened when the vessel's exterior scraped across rocks and coral, leaving behind more than 700kg of paint containing the deadly and now-banned chemical called tributyltin - also known as TBT.

Maritime insurer The London P&I Club, which represents Shenzen Energy, told Justice Andrew Greenwood on Wednesday that the government's remediation plans were not necessary as the reef was healing itself.

"About 132,705 tonnes of sediment volume contains living organisms so the remedy proposed by the Commonwealth involves killing everything that's living in ... an area of 52 hectares or greater," London's barrister Julian Sexton SC said.

Mr Sexton also argued that the government's clean-up bill was well above the amount his client was prepared to pay because the reef had recovered significantly in the six years since the accident.

Mr Sexton said London and Shenzen were willing to pay about $38m and that amount would be based on standards outlined in the Commonwealth Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims Act.

"The position now is that the levels of eco-toxicity - which is not the levels of containment - are such that remediation is not warranted," Mr Sexton said.

"The preferred ecological response to what's there is to do nothing because ... there has been six years of natural remediation."

Over the next four weeks, the court will hear from a range of environmental disaster and marine experts, local recreational fishers and boat charter operators as well as the two men who were held criminally responsible for the disaster.

Chief officer Xuegang Wang, who was in charge of the vessel, was sentenced to 18 months in jail in 2012.

He served three months behind bars and was placed on a two-year good behaviour bond.

The ship's master Jichang Weng was fined $25,000. - ARM NEWSDESK

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