Rena 'worst maritime environmental disaster'

Last updated 22:33 11/10/2011
Mike Scott

Residents and tourists are taking matters into their own hands to clean oil sludge from Mt Manganui Beach despite authorities asking them not to.

crack appearing in the middle of the Rena's hull.
This image shows a crack appearing in the middle of the Rena's hull.
Reona oil spill graphic

Related Links

Rena stuck on Astrolabe Reef Mt Maunganui beach clean-up Dispersants 'worse than oil' Locals get stuck into beach oil cleanup Port offers help in Rena salvage Rena salvage claimed 'fastest ever' Safe to swim by summer, says expert Seabirds benefit from ultimate bath Safety issues raised over Rena Mussel boats called in to help with Rena cleanup Full Rena coverage

Relevant offers

The Rena response team has been grilled by about 300 anxious residents at a community meeting in Tauranga.

Heavy swells are lashing the stricken container ship as it lists on a 15 degree angle, placing its cargo at risk of falling into the sea.

Environment Minister Nick Smith has labelled the Rena New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster, with oil expected to wash-up on shores for months to come.

Do you have photos, video or news about the stranded ship and oil spill? Send them to us at

Since Rena ran aground on Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga last Wednesday, an estimated 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil has leaked from its ruptured hull into the Bay of the Plenty. More than 1300 tonnes and 200 tonnes of diesel is still on board.

The meeting, which started at 7pm tonight at Tauranga Boys College, was one of the first opportunities residents had to get their questions answered - and they didn't hold back.

The panel of experts, which included Smith and Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) director Catherine Taylor, were thrown dozens of question, including the use of more booms around estuaries; the impact on tourism and the upcoming summer; and the clean-up of beaches and rocky shores.

Convener, National MP for Tauranga, Simon Bridges, had to hit the breaks numerous times when questions got heated or one eager residents had a pile of things to ask.

The session was briefly interrupted by Taylor who gave the crowd an update on the amount of oil being spewed into the sea.

The crowd gasped in horror when she said a further 200 to 300 tonnes of oil had spilled from Rena and it was now in about a 15 degree list.


The ship was listing 11 degree to its port side yesterday and had become more stable today, leaning at about three to six degrees, MNZ said.

But it has since toppled over to its starboard side, and was this evening on a 15 degree lean. Swells of up to five metres were pounding the ship.

Fears the ship would break up and its 1368 containers fall in to the sea have been growing as bad weather continues.

At a press conference today Smith said oil was hemorrhaging from the ship's punctured hull at "fivefold" the rate it was immediately after its grounding.

"Significantly more oil" was expected to reach the northern end of Papamoa early tomorrow morning, MNZ said.

Fifty-three dead birds have been found and 17 have been treated by the National Oiled Wildlife Response team.

The public is advised not to touch the dead birds and to avoid all contact with oil that has washed ashore as it is highly toxic.

Ad Feedback


Crew from the ship have come ashore this afternoon following a mayday call earlier today.

About 25 crew, many of Filipino descent, were brought into the Port of Tauranga earlier this afternoon aboard the HMNZS Taupo.

A Navy officer was delivered to shore on a stretcher. A Defence Force spokesman said one of the salvage crew members fell on the officer while disembarking the Rena in rough seas. He was taken to Tauranga Hospital with muscular injuries.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce told the public that Tauranga residents could expect to see oil washing up on beaches for months to come.

While Smith said the Government had started looking at what action could be taken against those responsible for the grounding to account, he could not rule out some of the cost falling on the taxpayer.

He said the spill was inevitable from the moment Rena ran ashore and the clean-up would be "a marathon, not sprint".

Joyce said the spill would be much more significant in coming days, particularly south of Mt Maunganui.

"This is a very inexact science" and the oil would move according to currents and winds, he said.


Prime Minister John Key this afternoon rejected suggestions the Government had reacted too slowly to the looming environmental catastrophe.

''But this is a very difficult and complex situation and there are a limited number of people around the world that you ultimately have to mobilise to New Zealand to ensure that you can ultimately start a recovery operation.''

Key said it was ''too early'' to talk about compensation.

''I understand they (the shipping company) have significant insurance and I am sure Maritime New Zealand, in due course, will have those discussions.

''There are also two investigations under way and we will need to get those investigations reached, which will probably take quite some weeks and then understand how liability should be apportioned but we will do that in due course.''

He described the situation as "very, very serious".

"Eventually, someone will have to accept responsibility for what's gone wrong here."


Attempts to remove fuel this morning were hampered when the Awanuia, the vessel receiving the oil, collided with the Rena in rough seas.

The boat has since been repaired and is now on standby to be redeployed when the weather improves.

As oil continues to flow into the sea, the company charged with salvaging the ship - Svitzer Salvage - said there was no guarantee the Rena could be refloated.

Spokesman Matthew Watson told NewstalkZB said the poor weather was a setback.

"Still a lot of work going on in the background making sure all the equipment required to try and re-float the vessel is intact. It's pretty obvious at the moment that things are still quite precarious," he said.

It was understood today's new oil spill was coming from the duct keel and not the fuel tanks.

The latest leak came as one expert warned the chemical dispersant used to break up the oil, Corexit 9500, could be "more harmful than the oil itself".

University of Southampton lecturer in oceanography Dr Simon Boxall said in their raw form some dispersants could be "very toxic" and he believed it would do "more harm than good". Smith said the dispersal that had been used was no more toxic than dishwashing liquid and had been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This is a matter of 'the lesser of two evils'," he said.

At least 1800 litres of Corexit dispersant had been used with variable results to date.

Helicopters have been on standby all day to spray further dispersant but have been unable to use it today due to poor weather conditions.


It was confirmed tonight that the Rena had a close encounter with another vessel on October 2, three days before it was grounded on the reef.

The master of the Torea ship told MNZ that it had to take a 360 degree precautionary turn after the Rena overtook the vessel in the early hours of October 2.

It was described as being a “purely precautionary turn” to give the Rena more sea room.

This new information will be included in the MNZ investigation into the ship.


Meanwhile, about 100 army personnel from Linton were travelling to Tauranga tonight and tomorrow to help remove oil from the coastline.

A Defence Force spokesman said they would receive training in the morning on how to handle the "relatively toxic" material.

They join a planning team, four naval ships and two helicopters that are already in Tauranga.

Rena's crew were evacuated via helicopter, however poor weather meant the crew were then transferred to a naval vessel patrolling the shipwreck site.

MNZ salvage unit manager Bruce Anderson earlier said the crew's evacuation is a precautionary measure as the vessel is moving. 

The movement was triggered by the overnight storm when a more than three metre swell and 30-40 knot northeasterly winds buffeted the vessel, partially re-correcting its port-side lean.

Anderson says while there is some new damage to the ship, it is not breaking-up.

"The vessel is not going to break up at this time; it is just re-finding its equilibrium."


MNZ head Catherine Taylor said the ship could remain on Astrolabe Reef for years during a salvage operation.

Taylor spoke to more than 100 people gathered at Waikari marae at Mt Maunganui last night. Many had made the trip from Motiti Island.

Taylor told the crowd that hitting the volcanic reef would have been "like striking a can opener".

A special vessel with a crane, the Pencaldo, was leaving Australia and due in Tauranga on Wednesday to start removing containers from the vessel, Taylor said.

Lifting the containers from the Rena will be "an interesting challenge" she said. It would take "several months" to remove the more than 2000 containers and the vessel could remain on the reef for years while salvage took place.

There was a risk that the ship would lose its cargo overboard.

Eight containers on the ship contain hazardous materials.

Four contain ferrosilicone, which produces a flammable gas when it touches water, and the others contain chemicals including a load of hydrogen peroxide.

"There is a possibility that containers will head off the ship because of the seas and the weather," Joyce said last night.

Yesterday, the 1km exclusion zone was increased to 1.5 nautical miles, or about 2.8km.

Seasprite and Iroquois helicopters will be used to move salvage experts to and from the Rena, and a C-130 Hercules has brought oil-containment equipment from Australia.


Meanwhile, the cleaning of oil that had washed up on beaches was best done by hand, said Taylor. Heavy machinery might make work quicker, but it pushed toxic material into sand.

It would be slow work but "please do not think we are not doing anything," she said.

The first oil arrived on Mt Maunganui Beach yesterday morning. At first it was sporadic, but by midday there were long lines of oil blobs.

By evening there were reports oil had reached as far south as Papamoa, and was creeping towards Maketu, where protective booms were placed to protect threatened New Zealand dotterel and five critically endangered fairy terns.

Today there are reports oil has washed-up as far up as Waihi Beach.

Locals, many upset at a perceived lack of action by authorities, took to the beach and filled buckets with the toxic globs, ignoring signs telling them to stay clear of the oil for the sake of their health.

Service defended the delay in the official clean up beginning. "It's far better to wait until there is a reasonable accumulation of oil before we clean it up," he said.

The mess on the foreshore has been made by only the 10 to 50 tonnes of oil that has leaked from the Rena. About 1700 tonnes is believed to be on the vessel.


Revelations emerged last night that the ship was discovered to have multiple problems before setting sail for New Zealand.

Inspections in China and Australia revealed more than a dozen problems with the Rena, which was still threatening to break apart.

The Maritime Union yesterday called on authorities to release any of their reports on the Rena after suggesting it had multiple problems, including incorrect charts.

Joyce said there had been inspections in China, at the beginning of July, and subsequently Fremantle, Australia, before the ship plotted its course for New Zealand.

"In this case, the inspection in China said there were some deficiencies. A dozen of them had to be rectified before the ship left and the other six had to be rectified within two weeks. So that was passed on to the next port of call, which was Fremantle, and that raised some additional deficiencies."

The vehicle was detained in Fremantle and then released by Australian officials, who passed further concerns on to their New Zealand counterparts to check.

MNZ had inspected the ship at Bluff and it was given the all clear.

Joyce also confirmed there had also been a problem with one of the ship's charts - but that had related to the south coast of China, not New Zealand.


Special offers
Opinion poll

Which would you prefer?

A traditional burial


A natural burial


Vote Result

Related story: Natural burials the way to go

Featured Promotions

Sponsored Content

In Our Nature blog

In Our Nature, with Nicola Toki

The cost of losing nature