Oil spill disaster New Zealand's 'worst in decades'

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Media captionCatherine Taylor, director of Maritime New Zealand, on the oil spill

An oil spill from a stranded cargo ship off New Zealand is the country's worst environmental disaster in decades, the government says.

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.

Bad weather has halted work to pump oil off the ship.

Environment Minister Nick Smith said the situation was going to get "significantly worse" in coming days.

"This event has come to a stage where it is New Zealand's most significant maritime environmental disaster," he told a news briefing in Tauranga.

Mr Smith said the rate at which oil was gushing out of the ship had increased "fivefold" since it ran aground.

"The government is determined to throw everything possible at minimising the environmental harm of what is now clear to be New Zealand's worst environmental disaster in many decades."

Warning to shipping

The Rena, which was heading to Tauranga port, is still intact but is now listing at 18 degrees.

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ), which is managing the emergency response, said an estimated 200 to 350 tonnes of oil had been released.

Weather conditions are expected to deteriorate over the next 24-48 hours, increasing fears the ship might break up, leaking all 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board and shedding its cargo.

A navigational warning has been issued in case containers fall into the sea.

The salvage crew on board were evacuated on Tuesday as a precaution - one navy officer was injured in the operation.

A tanker which had been offloading the oil had to return to port on Monday for repairs but will resume work once the weather has calmed.

Clumps of heavy oil have washed up on the beaches of Mt Maunganui and the nearby community of Papamoa and are expected to reach Tauranga port and beaches south to Maketu.

Officials have closed affected beaches and warned people to stay away from the shore.

"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," said MNZ.

Image caption Officials have warned local people not to collect the globules of oil

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

"People are angry that this could have happened on our doorstep and it could really ruin one of the best beaches around," one local man, Jim Kohu, told Reuters.

A spokesman for the WWF, Bob Zuur, told the BBC that the oil represents "potentially a huge tragedy" for wildlife in the popular tourist area.

"There are thousands of gannets and petrels and shearwaters in the area and hundreds of blue penguins... And we've got dotterels and oyster catchers nesting on the sandy beaches."

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.

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