Editorial: Cleanup all at sea

20:35, Oct 10 2011

A fuel tanker arrived off the coast of Tauranga yesterday to help offload 1700 tonnes of oil from the stricken container ship, Rena. Already an estimated 20 tonnes of toxic oil has leaked from the ship and Environment Minister Nick Smith says the incident has the potential to be New Zealand's most significant maritime disaster in decades.

Rena ran aground on the Astrolabe reef near Tauranga Harbour in the early hours of Wednesday. Work to deal with it obviously began immediately, but it has taken almost five days to get a tanker in position to remove the fuel threatening to spill from the vessel. In addition, the dispersant used on the oil that has already spilled did not perform as expected. Given the potential damage the incident may inflict, the time taken to mount an effective response to it raises legitimate questions about the preparedness of Maritime New Zealand, the body with the ultimate authority over the accident response, to deal with it.

The weather in the area has been relatively benign and the vessel does not appear to be in danger of breaking up. According to the latest reports, its fuel tanks are intact and the oil that has escaped is only that which has come from pipes in the vessel that have broken. So far there appear to have been fewer than a dozen birds affected by the oil, and most of them have been saved. But an idea of the kind of damage a larger spill could cause can be shown by comparing it to one a couple of years ago off the Queensland coast, when just 230 tonnes of fuel spilt into the Coral Sea. It took 16 months to clean that mess up at a cost of $5 million, without considering the unquantifiable damage to animal and aquatic life.

Clearly salvaging a vessel like Rena in this kind of situation and averting or reducing the environmental hazard it presents is a difficult engineering task. A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister, John Key, has spoken of the whole salvage being likely to take weeks not days. Assembling the equipment and crews needed takes time and manoeuvring other vessels close by is tricky at the best of times. The weather for the area is expected to worsen, with a storm forecast for tomorrow. There is always the possibility the vessel will sink and all of its oil will spill.

That is why a rapid response was vital. Whether the five days it has taken so far counts as tardy may be open to debate, but confidence that Maritime New Zealand was on top of the matter is not increased by the fact that the dispersant used on the oil did not work as expected.

According to Maritime NZ, the dispersants it uses are all tested against international standards for their effectiveness and suitability for use. The failure of the dispersant it used on this occasion seems to indicate that that is not entirely the case. Dispersants may not be an ideal response to spills, but they do offer some protection, and if they are going to be used they should be done so effectively.

As might have been expected, the Green Party has jumped on this incident to advance its campaign against exploration for oil in deep waters off New Zealand. This is just political opportunism. There can be no comparison between a properly run deep-sea drilling operation, far offshore and subject to rigorous environmental safeguards, and an accident in which a ship has hit a well-charted reef a few hundred metres off the coast. As the Prime Minister said, the only connection is that both are at sea.


The Press