Fears Rena could lose cargo

Last updated 21:31 10/10/2011
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Prime Minister John Key and Minister of Transport Steven Joyce outlined concerns and action on the oil spill from the cargo ship Rena.

crack appearing in the middle of the Rena's hull.
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This image shows a crack appearing in the middle of the Rena's hull.
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NATURE'S WORK: Helpers, from left, Sarah Wood, Ella Dumas and Rob Fraser walk Papamoa Beach looking for animals and birds affected by the oil spill.

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There are fears that stricken container ship Rena could lose her cargo overnight as bad weather moves in.

Transport Minister Stephen Joyce confirmed there was a possibility that containers would topple from the ship because of expected high seas and bad weather off the Bay of Plenty coast.

"They are keeping an eye on that; they are obviously going to monitor it if it occurs; they've lashed all the containers, relashed them and lashed them together as groups …..we're hoping it won't occur but it's entirely possible it will given the weather conditions tonight."

Among the more than 1300 containers on the grounded ship are 11 containers of dangerous goods, including four of the hazardous substance ferro-silicon which is flammable if it comes into contact with water, Radio New Zealand reported.

Joyce said the location of the containers was known and they were being monitored.

Joyce said the navy ship Endeavour would act as command and control centre for tracking the containers should Rena's cargo "hit the water".

"They will be monitoring them and following them and making sure people are aware they could be a danger to shipping and again it is quite possible these things will end up on the coast.

DEFENCE FORCE DEPLOYED

Defence Force personnel have been deployed to help clean up oil that has washed ashore from Rena.

Clumps of sticky, black, smelly oil are polluting the beach at Mt Maunganui, one of the country's most popular holiday spots following the grounding of the Rena container ship last Wednesday.

There were about 300 Defence Force personnel either deployed or on stand by.

Four Navy vessels, a diving support vessel, two inshore patrol vessels and a tanker have been deployed to maintain the exclusion zone, which was extended today to 2.8 kilometers.

Two helicopters were also assisting with aerial observations and transporting salvage experts and conservation workers.

Estimates suggested anywhere from 10 to 50 tonnes of oil had leaked in to the ocean. People were warned to stay off the beach and avoid all contact with the highly-toxic oil.

More oil was expected to wash up near Papamoa within the next 24 hours amid worsening weather conditions.

OIL ON BEACHES

Oil could continue to wash up for weeks, Joyce said at a press conference this afternoon.

Estimates suggested anywhere from 10 to 50 tonnes of oil had gone in to the ocean. People were warned to stay off the beach and avoid all contact with the highly-toxic oil.

There has still been no public explanation about what caused the ship to get stuck.

Claims about what had happened on the night the Rena ran aground would be considered in an investigation to come, Joyce said.

Joyce said he was aware of checks on the vessel carried out in Bluff before the incident but said the focus at the moment was on the salvage of oil and the oil clean-up.

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The Maritime Union has claimed the Rena was riddled with problems, including issues with its charts, which could explain how it ended up getting stuck on the Tauranga reef.

The union released a statement today, claiming Maritime New Zealand found multiple deficiencies with the cargo vessel when it carried out an inspection on the ship in Bluff on September 28.

While Joyce declined to comment further on the Rena's inspection, he did say the incident was "pretty inexplicable" and the captain had been interviewed by investigators. He had not been briefed on that interview with the captain.

It was "safe to assume" that an investigation would consider the condition of the captain at the time of the incident.

RECOVERING THE OIL

Recovery of oil from the ship was the first focus, Joyce said. Oil was being moved from the front to the back of the ship - work that was ongoing. Removal of the oil from the ship was "very challenging", with attempts to siphon it to a waiting barge today being disrupted by the weather conditions.

The ship was carrying 1700 tonnes of oil and 200 tonnes of diesel.

There was also about 100 tonnes of oil unaccounted for on the ship and it was not clear how much of that had left the ship. Maritime NZ believed the 100 tonnes of oil had leaked into the duct keel.

International experts have said the response was very swift given the complexity of the job.

With the ship stacked full of containers, towering up to bridge height, the salvage operations have included trying to secure them to prevent any falling off the listing ship.

Removing the containers would be very tough as the ship was on a 11 degree lean, Joyce said.

"The oil is the biggest environmental impact, it's bigger than any of the containers, I understand.

"They have to get the oil sorted first."

He said the Rena's hull was breached in a number of places and while there were no apparent oil leaks from the ship at present, it was an hour-by-hour question.

Crews had begun pumping oil from the ship to the tanker vessel Awanuia in case the ship broke up, but the configuration of the oil tanks meant the salvage was taking longer than planned.

The off-loading process is expected to take 30 to 40 hours and could be halted again if the seas get too big today.

Equipment has been brought in from all over the country and from Australia to assist. The Defence Force is also on standby if needed.

WEATHER HAMPERING EFFORTS

The MetService has issued a gale warning for the Bay of Plenty and is forecasting a northeasterly, rising to 35 knots this afternoon.

The salvage experts and naval architects on board are closely monitoring the ship and have sensors in place to provide advance warning if the vessel's structure comes under too much stress.

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) said it was working fast to organise a clean-up and have asked the public to keep away from the beach, erecting public health signs this afternoon.

With bad weather forecast for later today, all vents on the ship had been sealed to prevent oil escaping and as a precautionary measure, the containers were being lashed more tightly to ensure safety.

The weather also meant it was unlikely they could clean oil up from the water's surface, forcing MNZ to prepare for the oil slick to potentially make its way to Tauranga harbour.

SunLive.co.nz reported a 1.5 metre groundswell was forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, with a face height of 2.5m.

''The slow moving front over northern New Zealand is expected to direct a moist north to northeast low over the Bay of Plenty, bringing periods of rain with heavy falls from late [today], through Tuesday and into Wednesday.''

The low would bring rainfall of between 90 and 130mm from late today, through to tomorrow.
Northeasterlies, turning to westerlies, are forecast for Wednesday, followed by northwesterlies on Thursday.

The weather will impact on both the salvage and oil recovery effort.

Salvage experts and naval architects on board were closely monitoring the ship and had sensors in place that would provide advance warning if the vessel's structure was coming under too much stress, MNZ said.

A team of 25 salvage experts are on board the vessel, it said.

An air evacuation plan was in place to get people off the Rena safely if necessary.

ENDANGERED WILDLIFE

Papamoa is bound to the south by the sensitive Maketu wetlands, a home to colonies of threatened New Zealand dotterel and five "critically endangered" fairy terns.

Seven little blue penguins and two shags have been recovered, drenched in oil, and at least four birds have been found dead.

Frustrated residents say the official response was taking too long and began cleaning the oil themselves this morning despite the warnings.

"I'm not happy. Something should have happened already," said Tauranga resident Dave Lynn.

Lynn came across the oil - and three dead birds - while walking his dog near Tay St. The beach north from there was coated, he said.

"You can see the oil everywhere, the moment you touch it, it's sticky and yuck - it looks like big black rocks."
Wildlife response teams are in Tauranga.

- TRACY WATKINS, PALOMA MIGONE, JOHN HARTEVELT, IAN STEWARD and DANYA LEVY

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