Oil from ship grounded off New Zealand reaches shore

Radio New Zealand's Andrew McRae: "They need to get that oil off pretty quickly"

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Oil from a leaking ship stranded on a reef off the coast of New Zealand has begun washing ashore, as teams work to stabilise the vessel.

Fist-sized clumps of oil have been found on Mount Maunganui beach on the North Island.

The container ship, the 775ft (236m) Rena, ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef on Wednesday.

Bad weather has forced a temporary halt to operations to pump oil off the vessel.

So far up to 30 tonnes of oil or fuel are believed to have spilled into the sea and more oil was reported to be leaking from the vessel on Tuesday.

Officials fear that if the ship breaks up in bad weather, 1,700 tonnes of fuel could be spilled.

'Round the clock'

A tanker moored alongside the vessel to offload the oil had to return to port after suffering minor damage. Strong seas meant the tanker would not have been able to resume operations anyway, officials said.

Analysis

By comparison with an oil tanker, the amount of oil on board the Rena is small. Its total consignment is believed to be 1,700 tonnes, and operations to pump what remains out of the tanks are ongoing.

In contrast, the Prestige tanker wrecked on the Galician coast in 2002 leaked an estimated 76,000 tonnes.

Nevertheless, even a small amount of oil can affect wildlife if it comes ashore in the wrong place. The Bay of Plenty, named by Capt James Cook for the fecundity of the land and the generosity of its people, is home to colonies of birds such as penguins and shags, while frequent visitors include dolphins, porpoises and whales.

It is also a key tourist site; and with New Zealand hosting the rugby union World Cup, hotels are fuller than usual, ensuring that clean-up operations take place in full public view.

New Zealanders take conservation more seriously than people in many other countries, and already oiled birds are being cleaned and restored.

The authorities are asking questions of the Rena's captain as to how he came to crash into a well-known reef. In time, they may raise familiar questions over the flags of convenience system that effectively allows international shipping to operate without a host government having to take responsibility.

More bad weather is forecast later in the week and Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) said the off-loading operation would be carried out as fast as possible.

"The weather is expected to deteriorate in the coming days, so we are working around the clock to remove the oil," it said in a statement.

"The top priority is to first remove the oil, then lighten the vessel by removing the containers, and finally, move the ship off the reef."

About 200 people are involved in the salvage operation, while 300 military personnel are on stand-by to clean up beaches.

Officials have closed the affected beach and residents close to vulnerable coastlines have been told to stay out of the water.

MNZ said more oil was expected ashore in coming days.

"We are expecting oil to wash up on the shoreline south of Mount Maunganui but we don't know how much," it said.

Mayor of Tauranga Stuart Crosby said teams were doing all they could to bring the situation under control.

"The best people in the world are here now working incredibly hard under now challenging conditions, as you can see, to remove the oil and lessen the risk of an environmental catastrophe," he said.

Wildlife fears

Oil leaking from the Liberian-flagged Rena, stranded 12 nautical miles off the coast, has created a three-mile (5km) slick.

The department of conservation has established two wildlife rescue centres and dispatched teams to search the beaches and islands in the area for affected animals and birds.

Several oil-covered birds, including little blue penguins, have already been recovered.

Greenpeace has warned that whales and dolphins calving in the area could also be affected.

The owners of the ship, Greece-based Costamare Inc, have not given an explanation for the grounding, but said they were "co-operating fully with local authorities" to minimise any damage.

Prime Minister John Key, who flew over the scene in a helicopter on Sunday, said two inquiries to determine why the ship had hit the Astrolabe Reef were already under way.

Graphic

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