New Zealand oil spill ship captain charged

Aerial footage shows the ship listing sharply and a large crack in the hull

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The captain of a cargo ship that has grounded off New Zealand and is leaking oil into the sea has been arrested and charged, officials say.

The captain was charged with "operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk".

The 775ft (236m) Rena ran aground on a charted reef off the North Island port of Tauranga a week ago.

Officials say the fuel oil leaking from the ship has caused the country's worst environmental disaster in decades.

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ), which is managing the emergency response, said about 70 containers had fallen off the Rena after more bad weather overnight shifted the vessel into a heavy list.

The ship is carrying 11 containers of hazardous materials, MNZ said, including ferrosilicon which is flammable upon contact with water.

MNZ said the hazardous materials containers were not among those that had fallen overboard.

But New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said stress fractures had been found on the Rena.

"We can't rule out the risk of the ship breaking up, that's certainly being monitored," he said.

Growing anger

On Tuesday, MNZ officials said the spill was much worse than originally feared, with as much as 350 tonnes of oil estimated to have leaked from the ship.

Environment Minister Nick Smith called it "New Zealand's worst environmental disaster in many decades".

Oil from the Rena has been washing up on some of New Zealand's most popular beaches

MNZ said the Rena's captain had been charged under section 65 of the Maritime Transport Act. He faces a fine of $7,800 (£5,000) or a maximum prison sentence of 12 months if convicted.

More charges were likely, MNZ said.

He appeared at a court in Tauranga on Wednesday morning and was granted bail for one week, when he is next due in court.

Judge Robert Wolff granted his lawyer's request that the captain's name be suppressed because people "might want to take matters into their own hands".

The captain's passport has been confiscated and he is to remain at a nominated address approved by the prosecutors and make daily reports to a local police station subject to the needs of the salvage operation.

It is not clear how the vessel ran aground on a well-marked reef in calm weather.

With shipping containers falling off the Rena, New Zealand has issued a navigational warning and re-routed major shipping away from the grounded vessel.

Some of the containers have been reported to have washed ashore on Motiti Island, between Astrolabe Reef and Tauranga. More of the Rena's 1,368 containers are expected to fall overboard in the heavy swells battering the ship.

Meanwhile, anger is growing among residents of Tauranga and nearby communities over the speed of the official response to the grounding.

The oil spill is happening in an area teeming with wildlife, including penguins, seals, dolphins, whales and rare sea birds.

Bad weather, including north-easterly winds of 30 knots and heavy seas, have hampered efforts to pump oil off the Rena and clumps of oil are washing up on the area's long, sandy beaches.

Once the oil is off the vessel and the containers have been removed, salvage crews can work on lifting the Rena off Astrolabe Reef.

Map showing Bay of Plenty and oil affected beaches

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