Loss of experts blamed for spill delays

Last updated 08:03 20/10/2011
Mike Scott

The Rena salvage operation has been halted by bad weather. A team remains aboard to be ready to start pumping oil as soon the swell dies down.

Maritime New Zealand Zoom
Aerial shot taken in the morning of Sunday, October 23, showing a sheen of oil that had leaked from the Rena overnight.
Rena Bruce Goff
Maritime New Zealand Zoom
Oil responder Bruce Goff with the Terminator oil skimmer ready for deployment. on Sunday, October 23.

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Two top oil spill experts who quit New Zealand for jobs in Australia have been brought back to help with the Rena crisis, prompting Opposition claims they could have prevented a five-day delay in responding to the ship's grounding.

The 47,000-tonne cargo ship has spilled oil and containers into the ocean since becoming stuck on the Astrolabe reef off Tauranga two weeks ago.

Bad weather has been pounding the ship, and this morning there are reports the crack in the side of the vessel has widened.

Three salvors would head out the the ship to do an inspection, amid hopes better weather conditions today would allow oil pumping to resume.

Specialist recovery teams would travel to the East Cape today to deal with cargo debris and oil from the Rena which has washed up there, while salvage company Svitzer said it was ready to start transferring containers off the stricken vessel if weather permitted. > Read more: Flotsam heads from Rena to East Cape

Former marine pollution response manager Nick Quinn left Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) last year for a job as response manager at the Australian Marine Oil Spill centre.

Ian Niblock, who was national on-scene manager as well as the Northland regional harbour master, also left to take the harbourmaster's position in Darwin.

On October 11, Quinn took over from Rob Service as on-scene commander for the Rena crisis and Niblock replaced Alex van Wijngaarden as his deputy.

Labour strategist Trevor Mallard said it would have been better if the country could have held on to good people without losing them to Australia.

"Then we wouldn't have been five days behind."

He pointed to comments by chairman David Ledson in Maritime NZ's 2010 annual report that "MNZ was not immune from the effects of fiscal pressures ... and that retention and recruitment of `the right people with the right skills' and in the right numbers presented challenges."

But the Government has said its response to the Rena crisis could not have been faster.

Yesterday, Transport Minister Steven Joyce said it was normal to use international experts when a crisis hit, and several teams were needed.

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"You have got to have a number of on-scene commanders. Our guys go over and help with [Australia's] spills because you have to rotate people in and out. Our guys went over and helped in Florida last year. That's the way these international organisations work," he said.

But Mallard said Quinn, who chaired the International Maritime Organisation's oil pollution response technical group, was the world's leading expert in the area. "We lost him and had to get him back again ... They pretended it was a rotation when it was in fact a secondment or other working arrangement of someone who is part of the brain drain to Australia."

Meanwhile, Public Service Association acting national secretary Jeff Osborne said he understood MNZ had lost other key players.

It used to have a naval architect, a nautical analyst, an environmental analyst, a human factors analyst and a rules adviser.

"Those jobs are gone we believe, they don't exist anymore. People have left and not been replaced or they have been laid off."

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