Salvage crews were scrambling to off-load oil from a stranded container ship in New Zealand’s pristine Bay of Plenty yesterday, as New Zealand Prime Minister John Key demanded to know why the vessel hit a reef in calm waters.
With the official Metservice forecasting deteriorating conditions — including possible gale-force winds — from this afternoon, the race to remove heavy fuel oil from the 47,000 tonne vessel Rena took on added urgency.
Officials fear the stricken ship will break up and sink in the North Island bay and potentially cause New Zealand’s worst maritime pollution disaster in decades if the 1,700 tonnes of oil is still on board.
The crippled vessel has already leeched an estimated 20 tonnes of oil into the bay, creating a 5km oil slick and killing a number of seabirds caught in the toxic sludge. It could reach land as early as Wednesday, blighting one of the nation’s most spectacular coastlines.
Key, who flew over the accident scene 22km off the coast of Tauranga yesterday, said two government probes had been launched into how the Rena ran aground on the reef in calm conditions early on Wednesday.
The accident — which occurred in a wildlife-rich area that is home to whales, dolphins, penguins and seals — seemed inexplicable, Key said.
“People know about the reef and for it to plough into it for no particular reason — at night, in calm waters, tells you something terrible has gone wrong and we need to understand why,” he said.
His visit came as two barges began scooping up spilled oil, the first time response teams have been able to get out on the water and attack the slick.
Previously, they had been limited to spraying chemical dispersants from aircraft and helping affected wildlife as they waited for specialist equipment to arrive from elsewhere in New Zealand and Australia.
The New Zealand navy also had two ships in the bay testing equipment designed to contain the oil slick, Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) said.
MNZ on-site controller Rob Service said an Auckland-based tanker normally used to refuel cruise liners that had arrived and salvage crews hoped to begin pumping the heavy fuel aboard the Rena onto it later yesterday.
The Rena’s owner, Greece-based Costamare, said that all involved were “working tirelessly” on the emergency response.
“Minimizing any impact to New Zealand’s coastline is the absolute priority for Costamare Inc and the current primary focus of the salvage operations is the safe transfer of the vessel’s fuel oil from her tanks,” it said in a statement.
Officials hope removing the oil will help efforts to refloat the ship.
However, they describe the salvage operation as complex because the vessel is in the unique situation of having one end stuck on the reef while the other end is still floating.
Toxic discharge has already killed a number of seabirds, with six Little Blue Penguins and two shags receiving treatment at wildlife rescue centers after being found coated with oil, MNZ said.
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