Salvage crews have started pumping oil from stricken container ship Rena and will stay onboard overnight to get as much oil off as possible before poor weather returns, possibly by late tomorrow.
The 47,230-tonne cargo ship grounded on the Astrolabe Reef on October 5, spilling oil and containers into the sea.
Salvage crews have spent the past few days preparing to remove oil from the ship with Maritime New Zealand salvage manager Bruce Anderson confirming this evening that pumping had begun.
He said MNZ had received a plan from the salvage crew that will allow them to stay on the vessel overnight and all of tomorrow.
"The safety of the salvage team is paramount and I had to be satisfied that there is a workable plan to rescue the people from the vessel if something goes wrong.
"I have now seen the plan which states the steps they will take to ensure the safety on board overnight to complete preparations and then start pumping fuel to the tanker Awanuia that is lying off the Rena's stern."
"The team has encountered a number of technical difficulties, but the calm conditions and the forecast for the next 24 hours give them a good opportunity to get this work underway."
While the weather has been good for the past few days, it is expected to deteriorate late tomorrow which may impact on the operation.
"This is a hugely challenging and risky operation even in full daylight - these are incredibly brave and dedicated people working very hard to protect the beaches and coastline of the Bay of Plenty."
MORE OIL LEAKAGE LIKLEY
He wanted to stress however that more oil would be released at some point due to the nature of its position in the stricken ship.
"There will be more oil released. How much we don't know yet. When we don't know.''
Around 90m of the ship was firmly positioned on the reef but another 60m of the vessel was hanging off into deep water.
"The only thing holding that vessel....is the buoyancy of all the air in the engine room.''
Bad weather could destabilise the ship."There is every chance the vessel could slip off the reef.''
While the weather forecast was good for today, higher waves were expected on Monday evening, Anderson said.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce said the boat remained in a "very precarious position''.
"There is every likelihood that further oil may be lost. We are nowhere near out of the woods by any means.''
Meanwhile, there has been a report of a container off the Whakatane coast.
On the beaches, more than 500 volunteers had been expected to assist the clean up effort at Papamoa and Maketu today, combined with around 140 NZ Army personnel.
There had been 618 tonnes of oiled sandy waste recovered, MNZ said.
Joyce today revealed the cost of the on-going Rena oil spill clean-up.
So far around $3.5 million had been spent on oil clean up operations, but that did not include the cost of the salvage of the ship, Joyce told TVNZ this morning.
"The cost of the oil response so far is around $3.5 million; the cost of the salvage I don't know but that's entirely at the ship's owner's account - the cost of the salvage and the containers," he said.
However Joyce said the total cost for the salvage and oil clean-up could run into the tens of millions of dollars.
Joyce would be meeting with representatives from the company which chartered the Rena, the Mediterranean Shipping Company.
Officials have re-opened a section of beach previously closed by the Rena oil spill this morning.
A small section of beach between Mt Maunganui, from the Base Track, along to Moturiki Island was now open to public access, Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) said.
Assessments of the beach and water quality had cleared the section of beach being opened, said MNZ National On Scene Commander Nick Quinn.
"We've had beach clean-up teams there getting rid of the oil, and this morning we had environmental assessment teams digging down into the sand to check for any buried oil.
"They've dug a number of trenches down into the sand and established that it's clear.
"We have also conducted water sampling, which has confirmed the water in that area has returned to pre-spill conditions."
Changing tides and weather conditions could bring oil back to the beach, however.
Other areas had been closed so work to clean up oil could be carried out.
The area from Moturiki Island to Maketu Point, including the Maketu Estuary, was now closed off.
Additionally, clean-up teams were at the Mount as some oil had been found in rock pools there, he said.
A salvor who descended deep into the twisting bowels of the wreck of the Rena has described it as one of the most frightening tasks of his career.
Anderson said his team had attached four "platforms" around the ship, from which they would lower pumps to get the oil off. They were unable to start the process yesterday but today may see the first oil removed.
If it works, up to 50 tonnes of oil can be removed every hour. The Rena's current oil load would take around 14 hours to remove.
Crews were pushing everything they could to get pumping oil off the stricken ship, Anderson said.
"But they are systematic people, they have to make sure all the processes will work. The last thing they want is to make things worse," he said.
"It's far too dangerous for them to stay on the vessel overnight. If she moves or comes off the reef, they have got a nano-second to get off. The only way to do that is to get in the water and there are strong currents there – we don't need someone injured or killed."
Anderson said salvaging the Rena was particularly challenging. "I was talking with one of the salvage officers, and this guy has been doing this for a long time. He led the initial inspection party and he said this was one of the worst wrecks he'd ever got on. This thing is grinding and groaning away as it is twisting and mashing parts of it up.
"He said going on board that vessel was one of the scariest things he'd done. We shouldn't underestimate the complexity of what they're doing. They don't want to be inside the vessel, they are trying to work on the outside because that is the safest place."
One of the most terrifying areas was the engine room. Several times the salvors had climbed down a five-storey ladder to reach the base of the room, with the ladder tilted badly by the ship's listing position, Anderson said. There was also 60cm of water on the floor.
"Imagine that while you're doing that, you've still got this whole thing creaking and groaning around you."
Meanwhile, hopes the ship was resting completely on the reef were dashed by divers, who reported the ship's bow had settled on the reef but the stern was hanging dangerously in space, Anderson said.
"She is not as stable as we hoped and that concerns me."
He said a change in the weather and bigger swells could cause the ship to break up or move. "You just don't know what is going to take it off."
Anderson also warned that people should be braced for more oil. "We can't control a lot of this stuff and if we have another storm and the vessel starts rocking, we are likely to see more releases."
Environment Minister Nick Smith said while the volunteer effort had seen 70 per cent of the beaches cleared, it was not all good news.
Some of the Rena's oil appeared to now be trapped in the ship's duct keel. "There may be as much as 100 tonnes, and it could be released if weather conditions turn to a larger swell."
FEEDING THE VOLUNTEERS
Volunteers labouring to clean up oil-coated Bay of Plenty beaches have been bolstered by deliveries of baking and cut lunches from locals.
"A local bakery delivered trays of hot sausage rolls and pies as well as cut lunches. Cartons of apples, bananas and oranges were also donated. A number of locals also baked muffins and dropped them in for the volunteers," said MNZ on-scene commander Nick Quinn.
A local radio station had run a barbecue for volunteers at Papamoa Surf Club and one of the banks ran a refreshment station.
"Its very hard physical work cleaning up oil, and this has really given a boost to those people out on the beaches and around the shoreline," Quinn said.
- CLIO FRANCIS, with KATE NEWTON