New Zealand oil spill: 'It's heartbreaking'

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An oil spill from a stranded cargo ship off New Zealand has become the country's worst maritime environmental disaster, the government has said.

Officials say 350 tonnes of oil may have leaked from the 775ft (236m) Rena, which ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef off the port of Tauranga on Wednesday.

Residents close to vulnerable coastlines have been told to stay away from the shore and not touch the heavy globs of oil, which the authorities say are toxic.

Dave Tee is one local resident who has been visiting the beach in Tauranga.

Toxic oil
Dead bird on beach "The sight of the beach is quite heartbreaking" Photo: Dave Tee.

"I live just across the road from the stretch of coast where the cargo ship hit the reef.

"I went down to the beach twice on Tuesday to help with the clean-up and to take pictures.

"The sight of the beach is quite heartbreaking. There are parts that are really bad.

"The remains of birds and fish are being washed up on the shore. There are dead penguins, jellyfish, sea-snails.

"Seagulls are eating debris and no doubt ingesting toxic material. It smells of oil, and in parts, of rotting fish.

"We've been told not to go on the beach because the oil is toxic, but no-one there is actually deterring us once we start cleaning.

"At the moment it seems that most of the people clearing up on the beach are from the local community.

"People have been using buckets and all sorts of things to clean the beach. Everyone is wearing protective gloves. I've been using rubber gloves and a small spade and plastic shopping bags to collect the oil-covered sand.

Bucket containing sand and oil Oil waste is being collected by the authorities. Photo: Dave Tee

"We're putting the waste at the top of the beach where it is collected by the authorities.

"I hear that the official help-line has had a huge response from volunteers. I was talking to one guy on the beach last night who said he was turned away.

"Apparently the authorities told him that they can't take more than 1,000 people but they've kept his details in case. He's cleaning up anyway.

"I think people want to work as quickly as possible. The oil that gets washed onto the beach with each tide will just go back out to sea if we don't pick it up while we have the chance.

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"Last night it was pouring with rain but people were still working at it. Anything is better than sitting at home doing nothing.

"This is only the second day of the oil spill. It can only get worse.

Oil on beach "Now the weather has turned it will be harder to contain the oil." Photo: Dave Tee

"I'm frustrated by the government's response to this situation. The Rena crashed on Wednesday but they didn't start pumping out the oil until Sunday.

"I feel the prime minister really downplayed the situation and yet now we hear that this is one of New Zealand's worst disasters.

"Now the weather has turned, it will be harder to contain the oil. More action should have been taken at an earlier stage.

"People are also worried about the so-called hazardous chemicals in the ship's cargo.

"We want to know what these chemicals are since the ship is now looking like it will lose its cargo overnight (Tuesday) and people are very concerned about that too."

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