Personnel abandoned a container ship that’s stranded and leaking oil off New Zealand’s northeastern coast in the nation’s worst such catastrophe as the vessel was rocked by waves as high as 4 meters (13 feet).
The stricken ship, carrying 1,700 metric tons of fuel oil and potentially dangerous chemicals, ran aground Oct. 5 in the Bay of Plenty near Tauranga, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Auckland. While the vessel, named Rena, is more upright after shifting on the reef, it has sustained damage and is leaking a “significant amount” of oil, Maritime New Zealand said in a statement on its website.
“It is New Zealand’s most significant maritime environmental disaster,” Environment Minister Nick Smith told reporters in Tauranga today. His remarks were broadcast on TV3.
New Zealand officials are seeking to determine how the vessel settled on the Astrolabe Reef after interviewing crew on duty during the accident and seizing recording and navigation equipment, 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.
“I want answers and I think we are entitled to those answers,” Prime Minister John Key told Television New Zealand’s Breakfast yesterday. “Every year around the world there are ships that get into grief but not ones that plow into an extremely well documented reef in very calm waters at high speed as this one did.”
Bad weather is disrupting plans to remove fuel oil from the ship, while limiting the quantity that is escaping into the surrounding ocean and washing up on the region’s beaches. Salvage experts are grappling with how to remove containers from the vessel and refloat it, while gauging the risk of the ship breaking up.
“The Rena is still intact, but it is moving around in the weather conditions,” the agency said. “All personnel have now been taken off the vessel as a precautionary measure.”
As much as 350 tons of oil may have leaked from the vessel, according to Maritime New Zealand. That makes it the worst oil spill the nation has experienced, exceeding the previous record 20 tons that were lost by the Jody F Millennium when it grounded near Gisborne in 2002.
Recovery teams were able to pump about 10 tons of oil from the Rena to a bunker barge alongside the ship on Oct. 9 before efforts were delayed by the changing weather. The barge has been damaged and is undergoing repairs, while the weather will prevent a resumption of pumping, Maritime New Zealand said.
New Zealand’s MetService has a gale warning in place for the Bay of Plenty coastal region, with very rough sea conditions, rain and limited visibility until at least late tomorrow.
Oil has come ashore at Mount Maunganui beach and is expected to enter Tauranga harbor and affect other beaches on the coast, Maritime New Zealand said. There is a public health warning in place and people are being urged to stay away from the oil that has come onto beaches. A cleanup will begin later today at low tide, the agency said.
New Zealand has deployed 500 defense personnel and four naval vessels, as well as underwater and aerial assessment teams to prepare for the cleanup.
Salvage and environmental experts have arrived in Tauranga and nearby islands and reefs to consider ways to protect the shoreline. About 14 teams are checking beaches for affected wildlife. Seven blue penguins and two shags covered in oil have been taken to a wildlife response center for treatment, Maritime New Zealand said.
There are 2,171 containers on the 32-year-old, Liberian-flagged Rena, according to Maritime New Zealand. The cargo includes four containers of ferrosilicon, a solid substance that can be hazardous when in contact with water and can emit hydrogen, the agency said.
An aerial survey of the vessel showed no obvious signs of deformation, the agency said today. No containers have come off the ship.