A container ship stranded off New Zealand’s northeast coast is safe for salvage inspectors and in no immediate danger of splitting, even as oil and cargo from the damaged vessel wash ashore, a maritime official said.
“Although it’s creaking and groaning, it’s okay for them to be operating,” Bruce Anderson, general manager of monitoring and response at Maritime New Zealand, said at a televised news conference today. “The vessel is actually holding together at this moment.”
Calmer seas allowed a salvage inspection team to re-board the vessel for a few hours today, after strong winds and high waves forced them ashore Oct. 11. Cracks appeared in the hull of Athens-based Costamare Shipping Co.’s stricken Rena yesterday, raising concern the ship may split eight days after it ran aground in the Bay of Plenty near Tauranga, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Auckland.
The vessel has probably spilled as much as 350 tons of oil, and 88 containers are now in the water, with some contents reaching the shoreline, according to Maritime New Zealand.
Inspectors today found that pipes and other equipment set up to pump oil off the ship are largely intact, although some holds are flooded from the hull fractures, Anderson said.
“If it does separate, it could sit and rest on the reef,” Anderson said. “The holds are flooded which is okay because that helps pin the forward section onto the reef.”
The Rena was carrying 1,368 containers and about 1,700 metric tons of fuel oil, according to maritime officials.
About 50 metric tons of waste has been cleared from 17 kilometers of beach, Maritime New Zealand said in a statement. Access to beaches in the Tauranga region has been restricted to those who are part of the spill response, while dead birds are being found at sea and on the coast.
“To the people of Tauranga, we want to say that we are deeply sorry for the situation that has arisen and the threat you are now facing from fuel oil from the vessel washing up on the beaches in your beautiful part of the world,” Diamantis Manos, managing director of Costamare Shipping, said in an e- mailed video statement.
“It is our ship that went aground and we apologize without hesitation for what has happened,” Manos said, adding that the company will cooperate with all investigations.
The ship’s master and the second officer in charge of the navigational watch have both been charged under the Maritime Act for operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk, the maritime agency said in a statement.
The master appeared in court yesterday and surrendered his passport. The second officer appeared today, the agency said. The charge carries a maximum penalty of NZ$10,000 ($7,900) or 12 months’ imprisonment, it said.
“Whoever is responsible for this has to be held to account,” Prime Minister John Key told reporters at a televised news conference yesterday. “We’re entitled to have answers.”
New Zealand officials interviewed crew on duty during the accident and seized recording and navigation equipment to help determine how the vessel settled on the Astrolabe Reef, after according to a statement on the Transport Accident Investigation Commission’s website. The inquiry’s final analysis may not be ready until the middle of 2012, the statement said.
The cost of the disaster may exceed the maximum under the shipowner’s insurance, Key told Radio New Zealand today. The government will pick up any extra costs and will explore legal options to get more compensation, he said.
Port of Tauranga Ltd. (POT), the nation’s largest export port, will suspend marine operations for 10 hours from 9 p.m. local time after containers and debris were found in shipping channels, the company said in an e-mailed statement. Approaching and departing vessels are advised to keep their own lookout and are being given new routes through the exclusion zone around the stricken ship.
Port of Tauranga shares rose 2.5 percent to NZ$9.47 at close of trading in Wellington, paring their decline since Oct. 5 to 3.4 percent.
New Zealand’s MetService forecasts less wind for the Bay of Plenty coastal region today, with sea conditions changing to moderate from rough, visibility improving and showers clearing.
Six vessels have also been deployed to catch debris floating in the water, Maritime New Zealand said. The cargo on the 32-year-old, Liberian-flagged Rena includes four containers of ferrosilicon, a solid substance that can be hazardous when in contact with water and can emit hydrogen, according to Maritime New Zealand.
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