Crippled Ship Spills Containers Into New Zealand Waters

TAURANGA, New Zealand, October 13, 2011 (ENS) – New Zealand authorities are preparing to deal with the possible breakup of a container ship that ran aground October 5 on Astrolabe Reef off the Port of Tauranga on New Zealand’s North Island. The grounding has resulted in New Zealand’s worst-ever environmental disaster.

To date, an estimated 350 tonnes of oil has spilled into the sea and 88 containers have come off the damaged, listing vessel. Some containers have washed ashore.

The Rena, owned by Greek company Costamare, was carrying 1,700 tonnes of fuel oil and more than 1,300 containers, including 11 holding dangerous goods.

The container ship Rena aground on Astrolabe Reef as containers spill into the sea. (Photo courtesy New Zealand Defence Force)

A major clean-up of beaches and the ocean is underway, with some 500 responders on the beach. The heaviest concentration of oil is coming onto the long, white sandy beach at Papamoa, the largest suburb of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region on the northeastern coast of the North Island.

Public access to the beach is restricted from Mount Maunganui to Maketu Point, including the Maketu Estuary. The public is asked to please stay away from the beaches while the clean-up is underway.

Maritime New Zealand said this morning that a big crack in the ship’s hull does not appear to have worsened and the vessel has turned about 30 degrees, making it more stable on the reef.

But the agency is concerned that the stern might break away, and tugs have been on the scene trying to hold that part of the vessel steady.

Both the Master and the Second Officer have been charged by Maritime New Zealand “for operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk.”

Both men appeared in the Tauranga District Court Wednesday and were remanded on bail until October 19, on the condition they surrender their passports. Authorities have not released their names.

The owners of a stricken container ship have apologized to New Zealand and Bay of Plenty residents for the grounding.

A container from the Rena washed up on the beach (Photo courtesy Maritime New Zealand)

Diamantis Manos, the managing director of Costamere Shipping, says the 47,000-tonne, Liberian-flagged Rena was in a good condition and the master of the ship has an “exemplary record.”

“To the people of Tauranga, we want to say that we are deeply sorry for the situation that has arisen and the threat you are now facing from fuel oil from the vessel washing up on the beaches in your beautiful part of the world,” said Manos. “It is our ship that went aground and we apologize without hesitation for what has happened. “We have sent the best experts from around the world to try to help deal with the situation.”

“We will be cooperating closely with the Transport Accident Investigation Commission of New Zealand in their inquiry into the grounding,” said Manos. “We have just extended an invitation to the TAIC to visit our offices so that we can demonstrate to them our Safety Management System for the Rena and to try to answer any questions they may have. That enquiry will be ongoing with our own investigations.”

The salvage company Svitzer is responsible for collecting containers that have fallen into the water. The New Zealand Police and the Fire Service are assisting MNZ in recovering the containers that have reached the shoreline.

Authorities are asking members of the public not to touch containers that reach the shore, or any of the goods from the containers. Members of the public can report container sightings with exact location details, to 0800 OIL SPILL.

There are six vessels patrolling Tauranga harbor, picking up debris from the ship. Two additional vessels are preparing for offshore booming should this become necessary.

The effectiveness of the dispersant Corexit 9500 has been “insufficient to justify aerial application to the spilled oil,” said Maritime New Zealand. “We have consequently ended the aerial application trials and will continue to assess all response options,” the agency said.

Three salvage experts were winched down to the Rena this morning. They are inspecting the damage to the vessel, assessing the capability of equipment on the ship to resume removing the remaining fuel.

The bunker barge that was damaged while trying to take oil off the ship earlier this week is now repaired and is putting new mooring arrangements in place to allow for the safe transfer of oil.

Salvage personnel are lowered onto the Rena, October 13, 2011 (Photo courtesy Maritime New Zealand)

Over 370 New Zealand Defence Force personnel are on the scene and more are standing by. Defence Force Joint Task Force Commander David Turner said, “The troops are ready to deploy to Tauranga from Linton, Burnham, as well as Territorial soldiers from Auckland and Tauranga. Hopefully they won’t be necessary, but it is better to be prepared so that we can act quickly should they be needed.”

The Defence Force has four Navy vessels supporting the operation and maintaining the 1.5 kilometer exclusion zone around the Rena. Two helicopters are being used to move salvage experts to and from the Rena and take conservation personnel to outlying locations to check on at-risk birds and animals.

Hundreds of dead birds have already been found along the Bay of Plenty shore as a result of the Rena oil spill, but these represent just a fraction of the affected wildlife, the New Zealand Forest & Bird Protection Society said today.

“The number of birds being found washed up on the beaches will be a very small proportion of the birds being affected,” said Forest & Bird’s seabird conservation advocate Karen Baird.

“A lot of oil-covered birds will simply sink at sea and some of the more lightly oiled birds will be flying back to their colonies,” she said.

Many seabirds are currently breeding on offshore islands in the Bay of Plenty and nearby regions and any impact on the parent birds will also affect their chicks. These seabirds breed in burrows so any birds with oil on their feathers could carry that oil into their nests and harm their chicks as well.

Volunteers on beach clean-up duty (Photo courtesy Maritime New Zealand)

If the parent birds have swallowed oil, both they and any chicks they feed are likely to die or be harmed, and the chicks of parents that die will starve, explained Baird.

Among the dead birds recorded so far are 178 diving petrels, 114 fluttering shearwaters, 68 Buller’s shearwaters and 13 little blue penguins, along with smaller numbers of albatrosses and other species of petrel.

“The fact the dead birds include numbers of Buller’s shearwaters is significant, because they only breed on the Poor Knights Islands north of Auckland. This shows the zone of impact from the disaster has already spread outside the Bay of Plenty,” said Baird.

Eleven oiled little blue penguins were taken to the Oiled Wildlife Response Unit in Mount Maunganui overnight and five New Zealand dotterels have been removed from areas threatened by oil pollution at Matakana Island, Maketu and Pukehina.

“These three areas are important strongholds for New Zealand dotterels, which are going into their breeding season,” said Baird. “This is a highly endangered species, with only around 1,500 birds estimated to exist.”

Other species also are threatened. Five oiled seals are being treated and there are serious concerns for whales, dolphins and coastal fish species in the area.

A fund is being established to help community groups care for Bay of Plenty’s coast and estuaries, following the grounding of the Rena. Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Tauranga City Council and Western Bay of Plenty District Councils have joined forces to set up the Care For Our Coast Fund.

Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby said Tauranga people are passionate about their beaches and estuaries and will be looking for support in the future. Any donations to the fund will be put towards Coast Care and Estuary Care work not covered by the official recovery response.

For earlier ENS coverage of the Rena grounding, see: Oil Spills from Container Ship Grounded on New Zealand Reef at: http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/oct2011/2011-10-06-01.html and New Zealand’s Biggest Oil Spill Worsens, Hits Beaches at: http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/oct2011/2011-10-11-01.html

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