Salvage crew returns to New Zealand oil spill ship

MV Rena stranded on reef off coast of New Zealand - 13 October 2011
Image caption Cracks in the hull have led to fears the Rena could break apart

Salvage workers have returned to a cargo ship stranded off New Zealand's coast which is leaking oil onto a shore renowned for its beaches and wildlife.

With cracks appearing in the hull, they are assessing the possibility of pumping the remaining fuel oil from the Rena ahead of its possible break up.

Nearly 90 containers, some carrying hazardous substances, have fallen off the ship and some have washed ashore.

The ship's captain and second officer have been charged over the stranding.

Both have been charged with "operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk". The judge ordered that their names be suppressed for their personal safety.

The salvagers were lowered by helicopter on to the Rena on Thursday morning when calmer weather conditions returned after several days of high winds and heavy swells.

A pumping barge, the Awanuia, was returning to the Rena to recommence pumping oil from the Rena if possible, an operation that damage to the Awanuia and bad weather had delayed since Monday.

'Structural failure'

The 236m (775ft) Rena ran aground on Astrolabe Reef, a well-charted navigation hazard 22km (14 miles) from the port of Tauranga on New Zealand's North Island, on 5 October.

Image caption The beach at Papamoa is one of the worst-affected by the oil spill

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

About 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil is believed to have leaked from the the Rena, from the 1,700 tonnes it was carrying.

Most of the remaining fuel is in storage tanks towards the stern of the vessel.

The heavy swells over the past few days have battered the Rena on the reef, and large cracks have appeared in its hull.

The salvage crew is assessing the ship's stability and whether the power and heating systems needed to pump the oil are still working.

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ), in charge of the emergency response, described the cracks in the Rena as a "substantial structural failure".

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

"The reality is the vessel could break up at any point," the MNZ spokesman told Associated Press news agency.

"Conditions are very calm out at the moment," he said. "If we're going to get oil off before the ship breaks up, today's the day."

Container danger

The ship is leaning at a heavy angle and the stacks of containers on the deck have partially collapsed. MNZ said 88 containers of the 1,368 on board had fallen off.

At least one of the 11 containers carrying hazardous materials was among those overboard. Some of the containers hold ferrosilicon, which is potentially flammable or explosive.

Oil, debris, and some of the containers have been washing up on sandy beaches in the scenic Bay of Plenty.

A 30km stretch of coast from Mt Maunganui, next to Tauranga, south-east to Maketu has been closed to all but clean-up crews.

Residents have been advised to close their windows as the smell of the heavy oil pervades the area.

Several hundred oiled birds have been found dead. Dozens of birds and several seals are being cleaned of oil at a specialist recovery centre set up to treat affected wildlife.

The area is known for its long, sandy beaches and abundant wildlife, including penguins, seals, dolphins and rare sea birds.

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