Rena disaster: Second officer charged, cracks in ship

Last updated 22:00 12/10/2011

Cracks in the grounded Rena are getting worse.

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Aerial shot taken in the morning of Sunday, October 23, showing a sheen of oil that had leaked from the Rena overnight.
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CHARGED: The captain of the Rena, whose identity is suppressed, appears in court charged over the grounding of the container ship.

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The second officer of the Rena is facing a charge under the Maritime Transport Act as the fears grow that the stricken ship will disintegrate.

The 47,000 tonne ship Rena, which struck the Astrolabe reef off Tauranga last Wednesday, has been leaking oil into the sea. Up to 70 containers have fallen from the deck, as heavy seas continued to thwart salvage efforts.

Thick slicks of oil drifting from the ship have washed ashore on Tauranga beaches and oil has been seen on beaches in harbour suburbs.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce has confirmed the officer was facing a charge under Section 65 of the act, which covers dangerous activity involving ships or maritime products.


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The officer, who was in charge of the navigational watch of the cargo ship, will appear in Tauranga District Court tomorrow morning.

The ship's captain appeared in court earlier today, facing charges under the same section of the act.

The deterioration of the stricken cargo ship was now quite clear, and taxpayers may have to pay for part of the salvage and clean-up, Prime Minister John Key said.

Joyce said the biggest fear was it would sink where it was currently located.

"The worst case scenario is it sinks where it is because that water is quite deep and it will get quite a lot harder to get access to the oil and salvage it.''

Attempts would be made to avert that scenario.

"They've got tugs out on the water...if the ship starts to break up they're going to try and hold the stern on the reef because that will be an easier place to do the salvage of the oil from.

Maritime New Zealand had been preparing for the “worst case scenario” right from the start and expected to be there “for the long haul”, National on Scene Commander Nick Quinn said.

Thick slicks of oil drifting from the ship have washed ashore on Tauranga beaches and oil has been seen on beaches in harbour suburbs, but Quinn said the worst is yet to come.

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"Until now we have had a light oiling of beaches – this will significantly increase as more oil washes ashore over the coming days.”

It was expected that about 10,000 tonnes of sandy waste would need to be removed from the coastline, MNZ said tonight.

More than 150 dead birds were found today, bringing the total to 200, and that number was expected to rise in the coming days.

Forty birds and five seals were being cared for at the Wildlife Response Centre.

Taxpayers may have to cover costs if the Rena's insurance was unable to fully cover the disaster, Key said earlier.

Key defended the Government's reaction to the stranding and said: “I know everyone would love us to wave a magic wand but that's not possible."

He said there was a national plan for such disasters and that it had been put into action the moment the boat hit the reef.

"I understand people are frustrated. I'm frustrated too.

"Unfortunately we have to deal with the cards dealt to us."

The boom across the Maketu estuary appeared to be effective but Key said: "we may well see more oil in the estuary".

STRUCTURAL DAMAGE

Key said today that there was structural damage to the ship and MNZ confirmed there were cracks on both sides of the vessel.

An aerial flight showed a rupture on the port side of the ship was getting worse, salvage advisor Jon Walker said.

Salvage teams wanted to try to keep the Rena's stern on the reef, over fears it would sink in a break up. That would make the recovery of the oil difficult.

"We are hoping that it's still on the reef. If we can keep it on it we can deal with it," Walker said.

He added the gap in the starboard side of the vessel was opening and closing in the surf this morning.

"If there is a break up of the vessel, we are going to have oil coming out."

"Before we left the vessel we tried to blank all the tanks. ... We tried to retain the oil as much as we can in the vessel."

The salvors have three tugs mobilised to hold the stern on the reef while further effort was made to remove the oil.

The stern might have to be towed to shallow water where it would be easier to remove the oil.

Naval architects are working on possible scenarios and iwi were also involved advising on any cultural issues regarding moving or sinking the ship.

'HEARTBREAK' ON MOTITI ISLAND

Motiti Island residents were almost in tears watching oil wash up on the pristine beach.

A thick slick of oil today coated the shore of Motiti Island and containers from a stricken cargo ship were also washing up - with one reportedly trailing blue liquid behind it.

"It's devastating to watch," said Motiti Island resident Lynda Wikeepa.

"Everyone is out on the point to see the oil just washing up on the rocks, they're almost in tears."

Wikeepa said from the point on the northern part of Motiti Island, which is about 7km from the reef, she could see about 15 containers floating in the ocean.

One had sunk, with its door open, but was empty, she said.

"Another one has blue stuff coming out of it, it's formed a big trail of blue behind it,"

"It's very bright, much bluer than the colour of the sea."

Residents had called MNZ to get the leak checked out.

There was also a "huge" oil slick on the beach, Wikeepa said.

"It's heartbreaking."

None of the lost containers held hazardous cargo, and the majority of them were empty, MNZ head Catherine Taylor said earlier today.

Six vessels were intercepting the containers and drifting debris in the water, MNZ said.

The containers on board this ship continue to move in the rough sea conditions, making it difficult for salvage crews to work.

Residents were growing increasingly concerned for the wildlife and seafood near the island.

Hundreds of dead birds have been found and more than 40 birds and five seals are being looked after at the Wildlife Response Centre.

Response teams are also setting traps to capture seals to check them for oil.

About 36 field teams were working on the wildlife response.

MNZ was also warning the public of scam callers after the Wildlife team received reports that people were receiving phone calls asking for donations.

INSURANCE COVER

The stricken ship is covered for up to $5 billion in insurance claims - with up to a fifth of that set aside for pollution liability.

Owners of the Rena, Costamare Inc, are part of the world's biggest group of ship insurers and have organised substantial legal cover for the ship's captain and crew.

But if the company’s insurance was not enough to cover the environmental disaster New Zealand tax payers might have to foot part of the bill, Key said today.

Costamare arranged legal cover through its insurer P & I Services' New Zealand representative Alastair Irving, including for the lawyer Paul Mabey, QC, counsel for the ship's captain.

Irving said the crew were being "well-supported" by the owner, who was extremely concerned for their welfare.

He stressed the ship had "substantial" insurance, including both hull and machinery and liability insurance.

CHARGES LAID

Two crew members have been charged with operating a vessel “in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk”.

The ship’s master and the second officer, who was in charge of the navigational watch, have both been charged.

The master appeared Tauranga District Court today and the second officer would appear at 10am tomorrow.

The captain was granted name suppression and released on bail when he appeared in court.

The charge the captain and second officer face - under Section 65 of the Maritime Act, covering dangerous activity involving ships or maritime products - carried a penalty of up to a year imprisonment or a fine up to $10,000.

More charges may follow.

The captain appeared in an orange jumpsuit which appeared to be stained with oil. He was composed and kept his head high during the hearing.

Mabey asked for name suppression, saying the man could face further charges and he had concerns that given the

Rena disaster people "might want to take matters into their own hands".

Judge Robert Wolff granted the man interim name suppression to keep the integrity of the court process, and for the accused's safety. He was ordered to reappear on October 19.

He would have to reside at a nominated address approved by the prosecutors and make daily reports to a local police station, subject to him working on the salvage operation.

His passport was with the Customs department, Mabey said.

The captain could also not apply for travel documents.

MORE CHARGES POSSIBLE

The captain of the Rena had held his position on the ship only since March, and it was just the second time he made the trip Rena was on when it ran aground, according to the ship's owner.

A spokesman for Costamare Inc was unaware of the arrest or of the loss of containers when called this morning.

However, company information showed the man joined it in January 2007 as a chief officer, spending the last two-and-a-half years as a ship master.

He had commanded four of the company's ships, and took command of Rena in March, his second stint on that ship.

"His record with the company has always been clean," documents read. "His performance has been appraised with high scores and he has been incident free."

Joyce said more charges would follow those laid overnight.

Officials were working on charges as the incident occurred within the 12 nautical mile territorial sea limit, Environment Minister Nick Smith said.

The captain may also face charges under Section 237 of the Act involving the discharge or escape of harmful substances into the sea, which carries a penalty of up to two years imprisonment and fine of up to $200,000.

Charges under the Resource Management Act were also possible, Joyce told Newstalk ZB.

"I think you can safely assume that whatever is appropriate to be done in respect of the culpability of anybody, will be dealt with."

Joyce said he did not know if that would go further than the captain.

The crew had been interviewed and while the chain of command began with the captain there were "one or two" people of interest.

"The crew's job on a ship like this is to follow the instructions of the ship's leadership," Joyce said.

"It is inexplicable that on a perfectly calm day, with all the modern technology that are available in terms of navigation, that a very well-documented reef would be hit in this way," Smith said.

Police declined to comment on the arrest, saying responsibility lay with MNZ.

HEALTH WARNINGS

Locals were removing oil from beaches throughout the Bay of Plenty today, despite official warnings that the oil was highly toxic and could be fatal if ingested.

A strong smell has been noticed in some areas and while the smell should diminish within a couple of hours, it could also become stronger, MNZ said tonight.

MNZ warned that some people may experience “some physical discomfort”. It suggested people shut their windows and avoid beaches “and all immediate or secondary contact with the oil spillage.”

It suggested that anyone experiencing discomfort should move to an area with fresh air.

ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER

While there was no sign of new oil leakage today, fuel oil was last night gushing from the boat, with up to 350 tonnes so far leaking into the ocean.

MNZ said "significantly more oil" would wash ashore in Papamoa today. By 11am reports were coming in of sheets of oil, two to three metres wide, covering Papamoa beach. It was described as being thick and pungent.

Oil from the ship was spreading faster than expected, leaving dead animals in its wake and prompting Smith to label the crisis as the country's "worst maritime environmental disaster".

It could be up to two days before operations to salvage the remaining oil in the Rena resume, Smith said.

Smith said the stormy conditions would help to break up the oil that had already leaked into the sea, but it was also hampering attempts to salvage the remaining 1300-1400 tonnes.

Since the crew was evacuated from the ship yesterday it had not been possible to measure the amount of oil remaining in the ship's tanks.

A reconnaissance flight had landed after assessing the ship.

The salvage crew had to wait for the weather to clear before heading back out to the reef. Once there they would need to set up and begin heating the oil so it could be pumped out.

Under normal conditions it would take two days to pump out that quantity of oil.

"The greatest environmental risk is from the heavy oil that has been released from the vessel... (oil salvage) is the critical element of the current operation."

The exclusion zone, which extended 1.5 nautical miles around the ship had now been extended to Motiti Island. The new area runs from Mount Manganui to Matata and extends out beyond Motiti to Astrolabe Reef.

Residents on the island were due to meet with authorities today in a bid to be more involved in the clean up.

"We're wanting some protective gear so we can help. At the moment it's like they're trying to bypass us," Nuku said.

Protective gear had been distributed to local iwi.

BEACH CLEANING EFFORT

MNZ was calling on people to volunteer to help clean up the beach tomorrow.

Beach liaison volunteers would be on beaches tomorrow morning to advise potential  
volunteers and the public what the plan is.

People who are interested in volunteering should call 0800 645 774 or email iccrena@gmail.com

Clean-up teams were this morning braving strong winds, heavy rain and pounding waves to collect oil from Papamoa Beach and Maketu.

An MNZ spokesman said ten teams of 3-4 people started collecting the large clumps of oil from 8.30am.

Up to 20 teams were expected on the beach later today, with low tide about 2.30pm.

An Army clean-up team hit the beach from 10am.

Clumps of oil about 4cm thick and up to 50cm long litter the beaches of Mt Maunganui and Papamoa this morning.

The spokesman said there was less oil than expected due to the horrendous weather conditions which had "broken the stuff up".

Motiti Island resident Vernon Wills said the first globs of oil hit the island yesterday.

"They were about golf ball size. We're expecting much worse today," he said.

Wills, a resident of the island for 30 years said there was a northerly of about 25-30 knots and the storm was as bad as he has seen.

"This couldn't have happened at a worse time. This is an equinoxial wind. We thought we'd seen the last of these this year," he said.

"This is going to get bad for us," he said.

He said a team of Department of Conservation workers staying on the island had collected eight injured or dead blue penguins to date and expected to collect many more birds today.

HAZARDOUS MATERIALS

Eleven of the containers on board the ship contained hazardous materials, MNZ revealed last night, however officials dismissed rumours that yellowcake uranium was among them.

Four of the containers had ferrosilicon, which is flammable if it comes into contact with water. It was used in the cosmetic industry and had a low hazard classification.

Four had hydrogen peroxide. This was labelled as harmless at low concentration and was produced naturally from organisms. It had a low risk assessment while in the container.

One had potassium nitrate, a common garden fertilizer. It can produce a flammable gas as it degrades, but that was seen as highly unlikely if not impossible in the current environment. The primary risk assessment was low.

One had alkylsulphonic liquid. It was not believed to pose a significant risk to health and is not seen as hazardous in this case. It had a high rate of breakdown.

One has trichloroisocyanuric acid, which was used as industrial disinfectant. It had a white chlorine-smelling powder. Primary risk assessment was low.

It was not known what was in the lost containers.

Navigation warnings were in place, with ships in the area re-routed to avert the hazard, MNZ said.

MNZ said at this stage, all it could do was monitor the situation.

Ideally, authorities would have been able to winch people down to the ship to inspect the damage and see which containers were lost, but the wind made using the winch impossible.

It was likely the containers would wash up on the beach and the public were asked to report them, but not touch them.

The remaining 1357 containers had food, general cargo, refrigerated goods, and one Mustang car.

COMPENSATION SOUGHT

Fishermen Roger Rawlinson, from RMD Marine, said the oil spill couldn't have come at a worst time as they were fishing for snapper about 3km from the coast.

He said it had not affected them yet, but they were preparing for the worst.

"We are fishing close to shore catching snapper and trevally, so if heavy oil moves in we can't work because we can't shoot the net through the oil, and we can't pick it up through the oil," he said.

The spill could cost him thousands of dollars with the fishing boat bringing in about $40,000 a day.

"I've got men outside ready to go to sea, if they can't go to sea how are they going to get paid?"

Rawlinson was asking for compensation for any lost business, and echoed many Bay of Plenty residents by saying something should have been done sooner to prevent the oil from reaching the coast.

- KIRSTY JOHNSTON, PALOMA MIGONE, MARTY SHARPE, ANGELA CUMING, KIRAN CHUG

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