Published: Apr 05, 2010 4:51 PM EDT

ROCKHAMPTON, Australia  - Workers rushed to contain an oil

spill Monday from a coal-carrying ship grounded on Australia's

Great Barrier Reef, sending two tugboats to stabilize the vessel so

that it would not break apart and further damage the fragile coral

beneath.

The Chinese-registered Shen Neng 1 rammed into Douglas Shoals

late Saturday, an area that has shipping restrictions in order to

protect what is the world's largest coral reef and one that is

listed as a World Heritage site because of its gleaming waters and

environmental value as home to thousands of marine species.

About 2 tons (metric tons) of oil have already spilled from the

1,000 tons (950 metric tons) of fuel on board, creating a 100-yard

(meter) slick that stretches 2 miles (3 kilometers), Marine Safety

Queensland said in a statement.

Queensland State Premier Anna Bligh said a boom will be put

around the ship by Tuesday to contain oil leaking from the hull.

Aircraft sprayed chemical dispersants in an effort to break up the

slick Sunday.

"Our No. 1 priority is keeping this oil off the Barrier Reef

and keeping it contained," she told reporters in Brisbane.

Bligh said a salvage team had reached the ship Monday and were

attempting to stabilize it.

"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 told

Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. She said it could take weeks

to dislodge the ship.

The ship's owner, Shenzhen Energy, a subsidiary of the Cosco

Group that is China's largest shipping operator, could be fined up

to 1 million Australian dollars ($920,000) for straying from a

shipping lane used by 6,000 cargo vessels each year, Bligh said.

"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 and wreck more coral, or spill more of its heavy fuel oil

into the sun-soaked sea. However, Bligh said the risk of the ship

breaking apart appeared to have lessened since the first of two tug

boats arrived and reduced its movement.

Two tugs arrived Monday to stabilize the ship, Marine Safety

Queensland said.

"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" to the coral and hull, according to the agency's

general manager, Patrick Quirk. Initial damage reports showed

flooding in the main engine room and damage to the main engine and

the rudder.

A police boat was standing by to evacuate the 23 crew members if

the ship breaks apart.

The bulk carrier was taking about 72,000 tons (65,000 metric

tons) of coal to China from the Queensland port of Gladstone when

it slammed into the shoals off Queensland's coast in the Great

Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Numerous conservation groups have expressed outrage that bulk

carriers can travel through the reef without a specialized marine

pilot. Shipping lanes in Australian waters typically require a

seasoned captain to go aboard an incoming ship to help navigate

around hazards. Until now, the government has said there is no need

for a marine pilots around the protected area because large ships

are banned there.

Maritime law specialist Michael White of the University of

Queensland said oil is the major environmental threat posed by the

grounding. While coal could do "considerable localized damage,"

it would be quick to dissipate.

Marine geologist Greg Webb from the Queensland University of

Technology said the effects of an oil and coal spill could have

unknown consequences.

"In the past we always just thought a reef could put up with

anything," he told ABC radio. "And I guess over the last decade

or so, we're beginning to understand that maybe they can't."