Rena frustration lingers

There is little left for the naked eye to see of the once 236m long container ship Rena.
There is little left for the naked eye to see of the once 236m long container ship Rena.

Most mainlanders have forgotten about the Rena. It used to be clearly visible from the beach at Mt Maunganui or Papamoa, then the stern sunk and now it's barely a speck on the horizon. Out of sight, out of mind.

But on the northern, Maori end of Motiti Island, the Rena remains in everyone's face. Just 7km off the northern coast, the bow sits on Otaiti [Astrolabe] reef like a child's broken toy, a constant reminder of New Zealand's worst environmental disaster.

"We used to be private, no-one knew about us until that stupid ship hit our sacred rock," says Mata Wikeepa, a kaumatua who fought in Vietnam.

After the disaster on October 5 last year, Motiti was invaded by regiments of salvors, officials, politicians, media and various other hangers-on. Helicopters would land all over the place, seemingly with no regard for sacred sites.

Hundreds of volunteers from all over New Zealand and the world arrived to help remove the oil and debris from containers that washed up on Motiti's rocky shores.

All this meant the island's permanent population of about 21 mostly retired residents were constantly in demand, feeding and housing people at the island's two marae. It has left them feeling exhausted.

"Motiti's not the same," says kaumatua Graham Hoete.

"We've only got pressure, pressure from the mainland, people coming over, and that ship is still there. We've just had enough. It just goes on and on and on."

Rangi Butler, Motiti iwi co-ordinator for the Environment Ministry's Rena Recovery programme, agrees.

"Since Rena, our lives have been invaded, our culture, our time," she says.

Her son-in-law, Steffan Haua, Motiti's representative on the board of Ngati Awa, says the effects of the oil spill on Motiti were "huge, and it's still ongoing", oil washing up occasionally, and plastic beads littering the shore.

Monitoring of shellfish at Papamoa, Omanu and Maketu has found levels of oil contamination dropped back quickly to baseline levels, but results of more in-depth testing are not expected until next month.

Haua says there has been conflicting information on whether it's safe to eat kaimoana - crayfish, paua, kina, scallops and the like - so people have steered clear.

"To understand what that does to the people who rely on it - that's their Pak'nSave," says Haua.

"Then there's the issue of mana. You're expected to provide a certain level of hospitality and when you can't even put on the table what's right at your back doorstep, it's embarrassing to say the least."

Now, a lawsuit is being prepared against Daina Shipping, the owners of the Rena, to compensate for the pollution and loss of access to customary fishing grounds.

There are whispers of dirty tactics by representatives of the Crown and the owners, claims that they are going behind the backs of the hapu's legal representatives and trying to "pick off" individuals and groups with a "muskets and blankets" deal.

The word "kupapa" [traitor] is being thrown about to describe the owners' former "cultural adviser", Sir Wira Gardiner. It may be a year since the Rena grounded, but battle lines are only just being drawn.

On a blustery day in early spring, Maori from coastal Bay of Plenty gathered at Wairoa Marae in Bethlehem, Tauranga, for the monthly iwi leaders' forum, set up to discuss Rena issues.

After the usual powhiri and greetings, Shad Rolleston from engineering consultancy company Beca explained that the firm had been commissioned by the Rena's owners and insurers to investigate the impact, including the "cultural impact", of removing the wreck, as directed by Maritime New Zealand.

He stressed that no decisions had been made, and removing the wreck and restoring the reef to its pre-Rena condition remained the aim, but removal would be a nine out of 10 in terms of a technical challenge and would be dangerous. "We have to ensure no-one dies, it's a very dangerous job."

He showed pictures of the huge cranes that would be used to haul up the submerged stern, and said the chains used to cut the steel could cause damage to the reef.

Motiti islanders who attended the meeting noted that Rolleston spoke of the cultural impact of removing the wreck, rather than the impact of leaving it there, which seemed to suggest the plan is to do the latter.

The prospect of leaving the stern submerged on the reef, while attractive to divers, is met with something akin to horror on Motiti.

"It's our ancestor that's hidden out there," says Wikeepa.

"How would you like it if I came and opened your mother's coffin and put my rubbish on top of her? That's exactly what they've done. We look at it as a mess, [others] look at it as an opportunity to make money."

Butler says she has argued with her colleagues at the Rena Recovery office over the issue. "I'm tired of hearing my colleagues say ‘we're looking at other options [other than removal]'. Leaving it there is not an option for Motiti. Then I got called a ‘kaki maro' [pig headed] because I stand on the principles of what my people say."

Haua says current work to reduce the bow to a metre below the surface involves removing the bulk of the weight out of the centre of the hull, which rests up against the reef.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that . . . as soon as we get some decent enough weather it's inevitable the rest of it's going to get pushed off."

Robert Makgill of North South Environmental Law, who is preparing the legal claim for Ngati Awa as well as a class action on behalf of more than 100 Bay of Plenty businesses, says Motiti people have good reason to worry.

He believes the Crown and local authorities are cutting a deal with the owners and insurers to leave the stern section on the reef, thereby saving more than $100 million in salvage costs. In return for the necessary resource consents, Makgill says, the owners would cover the Government's $50m clean-up costs.

"I think they're cutting a deal. The owners say nothing's been agreed, but I don't think they're telling the truth. It's very high stakes. It will cost hundreds of millions, but if they don't have to take it away, they don't have to meet those costs."

Hugo Shanahan, a spokesman for the owners, denies any deal has been struck. He says discussions with the Government regarding compensation of their costs remain ongoing.

Last month the Rena's insurers, the Swedish Club, announced a series of studies to consider the effects of different options for dealing with the wreck, Shanahan says, and "only once these studies have been completed . . . can a decision be made about what's next".

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says the Crown is continuing to negotiate with Daina Shipping about the Crown's claims.

The company could apply for resource consent to leave the wreck in place, he says.

"The Crown's understanding is that this is what the owner has been consulting communities in the Bay of Plenty about, including affected iwi and hapu."

In May, the Rena's captain and the navigator visited Motiti as part of restorative justice, apologising for ramming the ship on to Otaiti.

Most people forgave them, and there is a sense among iwi generally that they have been made scapegoats, that they were over-worked and under pressure to make fast time.

"The captain and the navigator are indigenous to their country, the Philippines, and we are indigenous to Aotearoa," says Butler. "From that spiritual point of view, I forgave them."

Others were not so understanding.

"How can you forgive when you've got pain inside you? You can only forgive when the pain goes away," says Hoete.

In July, another delegation arrived by helicopter. Locals only wanted to see one person - Konstantinos Zacharatos, a director and legal counsel for Greek-owned Coastamere, the parent of Daina Shipping. But Zacharatos, apparently a nervous flier, was coming by boat.

Out of the chopper climbed various other officials, including Gardiner, who was described on documents advertising the meeting as a "cultural adviser" for the owners. A lawyer was also present, as well as a representative of Beca.

The original agenda sent out by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council contained the issue of possible compensation, but it was removed when iwi pointed out that their own legal advisers had not been invited. This was despite lawyers for Ngati Awa repeatedly asking the Rena's lawyers to be advised of any hui.

Haua and Makgill are outraged by what they see as attempts to bypass Ngati Awa's lawyers and "pick off" people at individual or whanau level.

They accuse Gardiner, a civil servant of Ngati Awa descent who was also engaged by the Government to sell its asset sales programme to Maori, of trying to stitch together a deal that would not be in their best interests.

"Quite clearly they are coming in with some pretty big guns to negotiate on behalf of the ship's owners and they're expecting to speak to average Joe Bloggs without any type of professional representation," Haua says. "We just think that's totally inappropriate.

"Obviously they've got a strategy, it's a little bit underhanded when they expect to engage with their own professionals but not give us the same opportunity."

Makgill: "Without legal representation, any solution for tangata whenua will be muskets and blankets."

He suspects iwi groups will be offered "crumbs" from any deal which the owners reach with the Crown.

"Advisers for the Rena don't seem to want to properly engage with us, there's some nasty tactics going on . . . and the Crown is not being transparent at the moment."

Gardiner denies he approached individuals.

"I talked to chiefs. They are represented by an [iwi leaders forum] which meets monthly and they represent all of the . . . Tauranga, Hauraki, eastern Bay of Plenty tribes. Those are the people we dealt with."

He says he isn't Daina Shipping's cultural adviser.

"Initially I gave advice on Maori issues but I wasn't the cultural adviser. I was advising the owners on relationships with the New Zealand Government."

He says his role now is only a "peripheral" one.

Shanahan also denied accusations of underhanded tactics.

"At no stage have the owners and insurers, or their representatives, sought to discuss compensation with them. Wira was engaged to advise the owners in preparation for their recent visit to apologise to Bay of Plenty communities, and to hear how they were affected by the grounding."

Shanahan says the visit to Motiti was to consult residents about what should be done with the wreck and no specific claims for compensation have been made.

But Makgill says whenever the issue of compensation is raised, iwi are told it's not about compensation, it's about the environment.

"Is that fair? They don't want a handout - they want to be honestly consulted, they want to understand what the Crown and the owners are planning in terms of any settlement involving damages to their environment, they want to be consulted and take advice on that, but nobody's talking to them."

Motiti Maori have so far refused to provide information for "cultural impact assessments" being prepared by the Rena Recovery team, suspicious of what the information will be used for.

"They keep trying to get cultural information from them, but hang on, that's their information and if there has been damage to their interests and their rights, then why should they be giving that information for the Rena and the Crown to use?" Makgill says.

He will not discuss details of the lawsuit, saying the most important thing at the moment is to ensure proper process for negotiations is followed.

On Motiti, Hoete sees the fight as "a bit like David and Goliath. The ship owner, they got the lolly, and we got nothing. We only got kumaras. We're a struggling hapu".

But they say their losses are mostly spiritual and cultural and don't want to be painted as money hungry.

Their main focus is to see the moana (sea) returned to its pre-Rena state.

"For a lot of people it's out of sight, out of mind, but we're looking at it every day," says kuia Te A Matehaere.

"It doesn't matter if they take the top half off, we know it's there, we'll always know it's there."

Sunday Star Times