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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, February 5, 2005

Reef damage worries experts

By Will Hoover and Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writers

The stranded Chinese ship Cape Flattery ran aground offshore from some of the most valuable coral reef communities on O'ahu, but it will be several days before a survey of the actual damage is done.

State coral reef biologist Dave Gulko said that some of the most interesting coral features in the area shoreward from the ship are massive, ancient heads of lobe coral, some of which are 12 feet in diameter and 300 to 400 years old.

"They are the equivalent of old-growth redwoods," he said.

After unsuccessful efforts to dislodge the freighter with tugboats, the Coast Guard planned to remove all the vessel's fuel, after which it will consider removing the ship's 27,000 metric tons of bulk, granular cement.

The bulk carrier ran aground about 400 yards off the entrance to Kalaeloa Barbers Point Harbor Wednesday morning.

In addition, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries biologist John Naughton said the stern of the ship hangs over some of the island's best green sea turtle resting habitat. It is a sloping terrain full of caves where huge turtles regularly rest. The animals travel from the resting habitat to nearshore algae beds for feeding. Biologists said they have seen big turtles in the immediate vicinity of the stranded ship.

Naughton said the reef on which the ship is stuck is a roughly flat pavement reef that is primarily made up of coralline algae.

"We're very familiar with that area because we did a lot of the survey work there for the deep draft harbor," he said.

A multi-agency damage assessment team will survey the ocean floor damage from the ship's grounding, probably after the Cape Flattery has been pulled off the reef, Gulko and Naughton said. The team will include representatives of the state Division of Aquatic Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA.

Greene said plans for removing the cement were still being calculated.

"That plan is still being developed," said Greene, who wouldn't speculate on how long it might take to dislodge the freighter. He also did not cite a cause of the accident.

Safety concerns prevent an immediate in-water survey because it is dangerous working around the huge ship and because there is so much tugboat, barge and other recovery activity going on in the area.

"It's 555 feet, and we're just not equipped to work in a hazardous situation like that. We've got plans to go as soon as it's gone," Gulko said.

Gulko said some evidence of scarring of the seafloor was visible to him during a helicopter survey. The team has been pleased that there is no evidence of leaking oil. The ship's cargo of cement could smother reef communities if it got into the water, but there has been no sign of that thus far, he said.

Precautions taken

Biologists were out on the reef late yesterday, surveying locations where recovery crews can place anchors and can run cables.

"We have expressed some strong concerns, and the Coast Guard and salvors have been responding very well," Gulko said.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard yesterday had removed more than 80,000 of the 128,000 gallons of fuel from the ship.

Coast Guard Unified Command spokeswoman, Petty Officer Jennifer Johnson said the primary concern has been to remove the 555-foot ship's fuel. Although there has been no sign of leaking, she said a marine barge next to the tanker has deployed a 67-inch floating oil containment boom around the ship.

"It kind of traps the oil," Johnson said. "The reason that the fuel is being removed as an environmental precautionary measure. Removing the fuel will take a little bit of weight off, but ultimately it's probably not going to be enough."

Company will Pay costs

At an afternoon news conference yesterday, Cmdr. Mike Greene, the federal on-scene coordinator, said the remainder of the fuel should be removed sometime today.

Curtis Martin, state on-scene coordinator from the Department of Health, said the costs involved in the freighter removal operation would be paid by the responsible party.

"We are the responsible party," said James Lawrence, with Pacific Basin, a Hong Kong-based ship management company that represents Cape Flattery Shipping, owner of the tanker.

"Our first goal right now is to make sure that the environment and the people working out there are well taken care of, and that we get this vessel safely removed with a minimum of impact," Lawrence said.

"We're obviously going to keep track of all the costs involved."

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com. Reach Jan TenBruggencate at 808 245-3074 or jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.