SYDNEY, April 5 (UPI) -- Moving a Chinese coal freighter that has run aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef could take several weeks and risk sending hundreds of tons of oil onto the reef, authorities say.
The Shen Neng 1, laden with 65,000 tons of coal and 975 tons of heavy fuel oil, was traveling off course nine miles outside its authorized shipping lane at full speed when it slammed into the reef Saturday, officials said.
It was heading to China from the port of Gladstone in the Australian state of Queensland.
By early Monday, aircraft flying over the area reported that a slick of oil from the vessel could be seen up to 2.5 miles from where it had run aground.
The oil slick poses a threat to coral and marine life on the 1,550-mile reef, one of Australia's main tourist attractions.
Planes had been used to spray dispersant over the 2-ton oil slick, said Patrick Quirk, general manager of maritime safety for Queensland.
"One of the most worrying aspects is that the ship is still moving on the reef to the action of the seas, which is doing further damage," said Quirk, The New York Times reports.
While a catastrophic breakup of the ship is not likely under current weather conditions, there could be a problem if the weather turns bad, Quirk said. The freighter's fuel tanks, rudder and double-bottom tanks have been seriously damaged.
"The continued leakage of oil is probably the best case we could expect," Quirk said, The Times of London reports.
Two tugboats have been dispatched in an attempt to stabilize the ship, stuck 44 miles east of Great Keppel Island, off eastern Australia.
Anna Bligh, Queensland's premier, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio early Monday, "It's possible that this could be one of the most complex and difficult salvage operations we've seen, certainly in Queensland's maritime history and possibly Australia's."
Bligh said the ship's owners, Cosco Group, could be fined up to $920,000 for straying off course.
"There are safe, authorized shipping channels and that's where this ship should have been," she said, BBC reports.
Australia has already experienced two major oil spills in just over the past year.
Last March 42 tons of oil spilled from a cargo ship during a cyclone, affecting the southeast coast of Queensland. A damaged oil rig last summer 125 miles off the coast of western Australia was considered an environmental disaster, with long-term effects compared to those of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill near Alaska.