Death of the Rena

Last updated 05:00 13/10/2011

Cracks in the grounded Rena are getting worse.

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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Stranded cargo ship Rena was last night at the point of breaking after suffering "substantial structural failure", risking an environmental catastrophe the taxpayer is likely to have to help pay for.

Meanwhile, the captain of the 47,000-tonne ship was on bail at a secret location, his identity suppressed for fear of vigilante action against him.

It was revealed yesterday the captain – a Fillipino – celebrated his 44th birthday the evening Rena ploughed into Astrolabe Reef. It is not known whether alcohol was a factor in the crash.

The ship's second officer – who was in charge of navigation – was arrested last night, and was due to appear in court in Tauranga this morning. He is charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk. Both men face possible penalties including up to a year in prison or a $10,000 fine.

Overnight, heavy seas inflicted more damage on the vessel, which has leaked a further 350 tonnes of fuel which was washing ashore in the Bay of Plenty. Oily waves had pushed past protective booms at Maketu, 40km south, threatening colonies of endangered birds.

At least 70 containers are believed to have toppled from the deck, at least 11 of which are believed to contain toxic material. Some have washed up on nearby Motiti Island.

Last night, Maritime New Zealand said cracks had appeared in the hull as the vessel – which remains stuck off Tauranga Harbour – shifted with the waves.

It has now been over a week since it became stranded and MNZ said there was real concern the stern of the vessel might break away.

The salvors had three tugs mobilised either to hold the stern on the reef while further effort is made to remove the oil, or to tow the stern to shallow water where they will remove the oil.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Key is pledging to use the full force of the law to recover costs from those responsible for the environmental damage caused by the Rena. However, he said the taxpayer might have to pick up some of the tab.

Environment Minister Nick Smith said there was a limitation on the level of liability of the owner of the vessel.

But there were provisions under other laws, such as the Resource Management Act, that allowed some recovery. Fines of up to $600,000 were possible.

"The Government is seeking further advice on the extent to which we can hold the shipping company liable. You can be reassured that the Government is going the full length and would use the full force of the law to ensure the maximum level recovery from those responsible for this environmental disaster." Defending the Government's reaction, he said he was keen to make decisions on the basis of the best technical response.

In the case of the Pacific Adventurer disaster in Queensland in 2009, under political pressure large excavators were put on the beach.

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"While that may have looked good short-term, it was the wrong thing to do environmentally," Dr Smith said. He denied the Government had been slow to respond, saying there had been ill-informed comment that did not take into account the damage to pipes that had to be replaced before the oil could be taken off. There was now about 1300 tonnes of oil in the two aft tanks out of the 1700 tonnes that had been on board.

The tanks had been sealed so that if the vessel sank the oil would be contained.

A number of containers have now come off the vessel. Those remaining continue to move, making it dangerous for salvage crews to work on board due to the about 80 tonnes of hazardous goods. Six vessels have been mobilised to intercept the drifting debris in the water.

MNZ National on Scene Commander Nick Quinn was confident that he had the resources to cope with the disaster. "Our experience means we have been preparing for a worst-case scenario right from the start. We already have hundreds of well-trained responders from a number of organisations across land, sea and air operations, and have access to more if we need them."

  -With Fairfax

- Waikato Times


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