New Zealand’s Biggest Oil Spill Worsens, Hits Beaches

TAURANGA, New Zealand, October 11, 2011 (ENS) – Fresh oil is leaking this morning from fuel tanks on the container ship Rena that Wednesday ran aground on Astrolabe reef about 11.5 nautical miles offshore of the north end of North Island.

Maritime New Zealand, the agency in charge of incident response, says personnel aboard an overflight at first light today estimate that between 130 and 350 tonnes of fuel oil has spilled from the damaged ship.

Oil spills into the sea from the crippled cargo vessel Rena aground on Astrolabe Reef (Photo courtesy Bay of Plenty Regional Council)

The ship was heading towards the Port of Tauranga from Napier, carrying about 1,700 metric tonnes of fuel when she ran aground. An investigation into the incident is ongoing.

The oil spill is now New Zealand’s biggest maritime environmental disaster and the clean-up could take weeks, government officials said today.

Over the past 24 hours, there has been more damage to the front part in the vessel and additional flooding in the forward holds, as the ship has settled onto the reef and leveled out somewhat.

The weather in the area of the ship is poor, with three to four meter (10 to 13 foot) sea swells and winds of 20-25 knots (37-46 kph).

Maritime New Zealand today issued a precautionary navigational warning that containers may come off the stricken ship and cause a hazard to passing vessels.

At this stage, there have been no reports of lost containers, but the agency says given the severe weather conditions and the vessel’s movement it remains a possibility, adding that containers may wash ashore.

The top priority remains getting oil pumped off the 32-year-old, 236-metre Liberian-flagged vessel, which has to be done before the ship can be salvaged.

Briefing media Monday, Prime Minister John Key said removing the oil from the vessel is “a complex operation and could take some time.”

While Transport Minister Steven Joyce warned that the ship could break apart on the reef, MNZ says currently “there are no obvious signs of deformation of vessel.”

Transport Minister Steven Joyce, left, and Prime Minister John Key brief media, October 10, 2011 (Image from video courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)

All personnel have now been evacuated from the stricken vessel as a precautionary measure due to adverse weather and sea conditions. The vessel earlier called a mayday as precaution to expedite the safe removal of the remaining crew.

Dispersants are being tested on the newly spilled oil, but the swells and winds are making it difficult for the chemicals to do their job of breaking up the oil, MNZ officials say. The Corexit dispersant is 10 times less toxic than dishwashing liquid and the ingredients that make up the dispersant are in most shampoos, the agency says.

Salvors on board the ship Monday worked to extract volatile gases from a fuel tank so they can get an operator in to manually install a pump that can remove the fuel. Crews cannot lower the pump directly into the tank because of a platform inside the tank that is in the way. As soon as it is safe to go into the tank, people equipped with breathing apparatus will install a pump to get the oil off.

The cargo vessel Rena aground on Astrolabe Reef (Photo courtesy Bay of Plenty Regional Council)

The agency says that further good progress was made overnight in transferring fuel from the front fuel tanks to the rear of the ship, where it is less vulnerable to spilling and can be pumped off.

The fuel removal effort suffered a setback Monday when a bunker barge suffered minor damage and returned to port for repair. Owing to the poor weather conditions, the barge is currently unable to resume pumping from the Rena.

No containers have come off the vessel as yet. The vessel is carrying 11 containers of hazardous goods, including two containers of ferrosilicon, which has the potential to cause a fire risk if it comes into contact with water, Joyce said.

“We are monitoring the dangerous goods containers, which are all intact and lashed down, but we will continue to monitor them,” said Maritime New Zealand.

The spilled oil is heading in a south-westerly direction, and MNZ officials say it is “inevitable” that some oil will reach beaches from Mount Maunganui south to Maketu. Oil is also expected to enter Tauranga Port, the country’s largest port, some 22 kilometers from the grounded vessel.

Clean-up response teams numbering about 100 people are at Mt. Maunganui this morning to clean the oil off the beach.

Oil has been found on beaches from Mount Maunganui to Girven Road and on the southern end of Matakana Island. It is in clumps of fist-sized patties stranded just above the tide line about every 700 to 800 millimeters (27 to 31 inches) apart.

Initially, 10 trained teams will carry out the beach clean-ups.

Oil from the Rena is washing up on New Zealand beaches (Photo courtesy Greenpeace New Zealand)

“We realise that people are concerned that there is not enough action happening on the beaches to clean up the oil,” Maritime New Zealand said Monday. “But the oil isn’t going anywhere. There are onshore winds and high tides coming which means that more oil will be washed up and the existing oil will be washed further up the beach. If we rush to clean all the oil off the beach now we will just be back there in a few hours to do it again, which isn’t the best use of our resources. It is more effective to wait until it accumulates and remove it all together.”

Local residents are being urged to stay off the beaches and keep their dogs off the beaches too. The Rena oil spill response team reports that people are playing with the oil and attempting to clean it up. Oil is not only toxic, but people doing this risk spreading the oil further.

“Although it looks bad, the oil in its clumped state is at no risk of going anywhere, and people attempting to remove it without the proper training or equipment risk making the situation worse,” warns MNZ. No shellfish or fin fish should be eaten from waters with visible oil contamination, the agency warns.

Some 70 volunteers are searching for injured birds along the Bay of Plenty coastline today as the oil spill worsened.

“We are faced with a potential disaster along our coastline and many bird species are currently breeding. The news that the oil spill is getting much worse is a huge worry,” said Al Fleming, Tauranga-based Central North Island field officer with the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.

Maritime New Zealand is asking members of the public not to pick up dead birds on the beach. Please call 0800 333 771 with the location of the birds and the agency will send trained teams to recover the birds. “We need to keep counts of the birds to keep track of what species have perished, so please report them to us,” said MNZ.

Red square marks the location of the grounded cargo ship Rena (Map courtesy Maritime New Zealand)

Fur seals are currently moulting ashore on headlands, islands, and beaches throughout the region. Whales and dolphins are in the area, and a blue whale and a calf were seen in the vicinity of Astrolabe Reef a week ago. Filter-feeding whales are at risk from sticky oil clinging to their baleen plates as they feed.

The oil’s effect on finfish, shellfish, crustaceans and other marine life could be disastrous, said Fleming. “Without quick action, the oil will blanket our filter feeding marine life which are not only important water filters but also crucial in the diets of many animals. Eventually the oil will accumulate throughout the food web.”

The Port of Tauranga is open to all normal shipping and cargo operations. Two on-water recovery vessels are mobilized and ready to intercept any oil coming into Tauranga harbor. The Port is making resources for the response including, staff, work boats, office space, shed space to store the oil response materials, and wharf berths to load the materials.

There is no oil as yet in the Maketu and Matakana estuaries, but with the currents and surge coming in, MNZ warns it is possible oil will come into the estuaries even though the Maketu estuary boom is in place.

Greenpeace New Zealand is taking the grounding of the Rena as a wake-up call. “The Rena spill is a warning to us all. A warning of how difficult it is to deal with oil spills at sea, and of the devastating impact oil can have on our wildlife, coastlines and livelihoods.”

The group is petitioning Prime Minister Key and the New Zealand government to permanently stop all plans to open up the country’s coastal waters to offshore oil drilling.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.