Prime Minister John Key has met Tauranga businesses today as the Government weighs up whether to put together a financial package to help those affected by the Rena oil spill.
The Liberia-registered container ship grounded on the Astrolabe Reef on October 5 and has so far spewed about 350 tonnes of oil into the sea.
Cabinet has been debating a package but one problem is that the full impact is not yet known.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce yesterday rated the prospect of getting all the oil off the ship as low and Key said the Rena's position remained "precarious".
At the Beehive, the Government heaped moral and emotional pressure on executives of the company that leased the Rena to put more money toward the cleanup.
But Mediterranean Shipping Company executives insisted they were not liable, though they were "more than willing to assist and help wherever possible".
Joyce said the company had given a "clear commitment" to help with the cleanup. "The amount is for them to assess obviously in terms of their reputation in this country and the way that New Zealanders feel about what has happened.
"But I've certainly encouraged them to think very carefully about that - they've been here for many years, they have ... around 100 port calls a year ... and I think the New Zealand companies and people they deal with will want to see them stepping up."
The cleanup has cost $4 million so far but is expected to hit tens of millions if the ship breaks up and its remaining oil is spilt.
MSC Australasian managing director Kevin Clarke said the cost of the cleanup and oil pollution were the responsibility of the owner's insurers.
It has emerged, however, that New Zealand's failure to update its international obligations means that liability for environmental damage is capped at $12m, compared with about $30m if it had been up to date.
That means taxpayers may have to pay most of the cost unless the ship's owners or lessors agree to put their hands in their own pockets.
NZ 'CAN FORCE FULL CLEANUP PAYMENT'
New Zealand's environment law has the strength to force a payment for the full cost of a cleanup caused by the grounded container ship Rena, experts say.
Authorities are yet to lay charges under the Resource Management Act, but it was confirmed yesterday that such a step was being investigated.
Two men have already been charged under maritime law - the Rena's captain and chief navigational officer - and are to appear in Tauranga District Court tomorrow.
They are charged with operating a vessel "in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk", an offence that carries a penalty of up to a year's imprisonment or a fine of up to $10,000.
Environment lawyers say further charges are likely under the RMA, including a prosecution that could see the owners left with the full cost of the cleanup bill.
Auckland environmental lawyer Karenza de Silva said that, although the maximum fine under the RMA was $600,000 per offence for a company and $300,000 for an individual, plus $10,000 per day for a continuing offence, the law had other tricks up its sleeve.
"When you have a really big environmental disaster like this, a maximum fine of $600,000 doesn't seem like much - but the court has as a sentencing option, in addition to imposing a fine, the ability to make enforcement orders requiring cleanup and payment of costs of [a] cleanup."
If the ship owner wanted to establish a defence under section 340 of the RMA, it had to prove that it took all reasonable steps to remedy any effects of the act or omission giving rise to the offence.
"Essentially, they have to prove they paid for the cleanup or cleaned up the oil," de Silva said.
There was no limit specified under the act for those costs. "In this respect the RMA is very clever because it ensures the environment is protected either for an offender who stands by and does nothing or one who is proactive."
Vernon Rive, a lecturer in environment law at Auckland University of Technology, said that, because liability was "strict" under the RMA, it was not necessary to prove intent or negligence.
"It is fair to say, however, that the degree of culpability - including any proved negligence or recklessness - would be reflected in the quantum of any fine or penalty imposed in any particular instance.
"The extent of the environmental damage, adequacy of attempts to prevent or mitigate the harm, and the person or company's previous environmental record would also be relevant."
Bay of Plenty Regional Council chief executive Mary-Anne MacLeod confirmed yesterday the council was jointly investigating a prosecution under the RMA with MNZ.
Only one agency was able to lay the charges under the act, she said. "It's about making sure we have the procedures absolutely right."
MNZ chief executive Catherine Taylor refused to comment.
Agencies have up to six months to lay charges under the RMA.
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