Cracks Appear in Stricken Ship Spilling Oil Onto N.Z. Coast

Cracks Appear in Stricken Ship Spilling Oil Onto N.Z. Coast
A fly-over shot of the stranded cargo vessel Rena grounded on the Astrolabe Reef in Tauranga, New Zealand. Source: Maritime New Zealand/Mark Alen via Getty Images

New Zealand’s biggest maritime environmental disaster may worsen as the stranded container ship leaking oil off the nation’s northeast coast has cracks in its hull and is tilting in high seas, tipping cargo overboard.

“There are substantial cracks and stress fractures now in the hull of the ship and therefore the probability of it breaking up has to be substantially increased,” Prime Minister John Key said at a televised news conference in Tauranga today.

The stricken Rena, carrying 1,700 metric tons of fuel oil and 1,368 containers, ran aground Oct. 5 in the Bay of Plenty near Tauranga, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Auckland. The vessel has likely spilled as much as 350 tons of oil, which is washing up on beaches, and about 70 containers are now in the water, Maritime New Zealand said.

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 today and surrendered his passport. The second officer will be in court tomorrow, 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,” Key said. “The responsibilities of those on the ship were to navigate a reef that is well documented. We’re entitled to have answers about why that happened.”

Hazardous Cargo

Salvagers have mobilized three tugs to stabilize the stern of the ship, which is in danger of breaking away, Maritime New Zealand said. The tugs will either hold the stern on a reef while oil is removed, or pull it to shallow waters so that the oil can be extracted there, it said.

Six vessels have also been deployed to catch debris floating in the water, the agency 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.

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.

Cost of Disaster

The cost of the disaster may exceed the maximum under the shipowner’s insurance, Key said. The government will pick up any extra costs.

“We are totally committed to the cleaning up of the environment,” he said. “These beaches need to be restored to the condition they were in before and we’ll make sure that happens.”

More containers may fall into the ocean and navigational warnings have been issued to mariners, while major shipping has been re-routed, Maritime New Zealand said.

The public should advise authorities if containers wash ashore and leave them alone as they may contain hazardous substances, New Zealand Police said in a statement.

3-Meter Waves

New Zealand’s MetService earlier canceled a gale warning in place for the Bay of Plenty coastal region, and forecasts wind as high 28 miles (45 kilometers) an hour with rain, limited visibility and waves up to 3 meters.

Personnel were evacuated from the ship yesterday as it shifted in the heavy seas, while attempts to pump fuel oil onto a barge were also unable to resume.

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.

“It is New Zealand’s most significant maritime environmental disaster,” Environment Minister Nick Smith told reporters in Tauranga yesterday. The spill is the worst the nation has experienced, exceeding the 20 tons that were lost by the Jody F Millennium when it grounded near Gisborne in 2002.

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