MV Rena hearings begin at Tauranga

ELTON SMALLMAN
Last updated 11:58 30/06/2014

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Iwi have called for the release of confidential documents between the Crown and owners of the MV Rena at an urgent hearing into the removal of the gutted wreck.

The Waitangi Tribunal hearing held in Tauranga heard from three iwi groups who claimed the Government's deal with the ship's owners, Daina Shipping, breached the principles of the Treaty.

They claimed the Rena owners agreed to pay $27.6 million to the Crown for the removal of the wreck from Astrolabe Reef and a further $10.4m to support their resource consent application to leave the remains in place.

Counsel for Ngai te Hapu Thomas Bennion said the Crown agreement failed to recognise the reef as a taonga and they had used concerns the wreck was of national importance to swept Maori interests aside.

"The Crown seems to think it did not need to know it was a taonga," he said.

He said the Crown's agreement with a company with a "black mark against its name" provided an "insipid test" for other to follow.

Last November, Motiti Island hapu spokesman Moana Buddy Mikaere learned of the confidential agreement between the Crown, Rena owners and insurers.

They were given limited disclosure but have been hamstrung by the Government in their efforts to release the documents to the public.

"We're just disappointed the Crown has been so reluctant and endeavoured to put obstacles in our way," he said.

"The crown has argued they are quite within their rights to do that. Well, we don't think so."

Ngaiterangi iwi chair Charlie Tawhiao was said the hearing was a significant day in their goal of the complete clean-up of the reef.

"Whatever the outcome, it was important this step be taken as a way of reinforcing our absolute expectation that the Rena will be removed," said Tawhiao.

Iwi had partnered with Government to restore the ocean back to its original state but the resource consent application showed the Rena owners were trying to escape liability.

The clean-up was a high-risk operation with safety concerns for workers and environmental damage a possibility but Tawhiao said that was a smokescreen so the Rena owners they didn't have to pay.

"Risk for us is a matter of price," he said. "You put a price on something, then the risk can be managed."

He said they cost of the clean-up would be landed upon coastal communities and taxpayers if consent was granted.

"The cost doesn't disappear, it shifts to us in terms of cultural damage."

He said suggestions the wreck could become a dive attraction were impractical and iwi were willing to suffer short-term environmental damage for long-term gain.

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"It is a rotting carcass and not only that the sea floor around the ship is littered with debris," he said. "We're not just talking plastic bags, we are talking piles of rubbish."

"As iwi we are making decisions for multiple generations," he said. "We can take a short term hit in order to secure a longer term advantage for our mokopuna."

BACKGROUND

The sinking of the Rena off the coast of Tauranga in 2011 was the beginning of the country's worst maritime environmental disaster.

The container ship ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef while sailing from Napier to Tauranga on October 5, spilling more than 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, plus containers, which washed up along the Bay of Plenty coastline.

Beaches from Mount Maunganui to Maketu Point, including the Maketu Estuary, were closed to the public, and cleanup volunteers were warned the effects of contact with the spilled oil could include vomiting, nausea and rashes.

Residents were urged to close their windows to limit fumes.

Rena owners Daina Shipping Company apologised to the people of Tauranga, saying they were deeply sorry for the "disastrous event".

The ship had been chartered by the Mediterranean Shipping Company.

Maritime New Zealand charged the owners of the Rena in relation to the discharge of harmful substances from a ship in the coastal marine area.

Daina pleaded guilty and the court imposed a $300,000 fine - the largest ever handed down in New Zealand for this type of offence. The maximum penalty available was a $600,000 fine.

The ship's captain and navigation officer were also charged in the Tauranga District Court with offences including operating a ship in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk to people or property.

They were both sentenced to seven months jail.

A financial settlement was reached between the government and the Daina Shipping Company, that would see Daina pay $27.6 million to settle the claims of the Crown and other public bodies including Maritime New Zealand and the Bay of Plenty District Health Board.

The total cleanup was estimated to cost about $47m, leaving a shortfall of around $20m based on the negotiated settlement.

Daina applied for a resource consent to leave part of the ship's wreck in place on the reef as a diving attraction.

The company would pay an additionaL $10.4m to the Crown if the resource consent was granted, reflecting the reduced salvage costs. The regional council accepted the resource consent application earlier this month, allowing parts of the Rena and associated debris to be left on the Astrolabe Reef.

The Resource Management Act provides that when public bodies make decisions, they must take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Bay of Plenty iwi said they had been left completely out of the loop in the decision on the reef.

The reef was considered an "important taonga" of Ngai Te Hapu, which has argued the Crown had an obligation to protect under the Treaty. has argued.

A Waitangi Tribunal hearing started in Tauranga today to hear the claims brought by the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust, the Mataatua District Maori Council and Ngai Te Hapu Incorporated Society, with a number of Maori trusts and hapu and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council as interested parties.

The tribunal inquiry is being headed by Judge Sarah Reeves, with Professor Sir Tamati Reedy, Sir Doug Kidd and Ronald Crosby on the inquiry panel.

- Waikato Times

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