Rena captain and officer sent to jail

SENTENCED: The Rena's navigating officer, Leonil Relon (left) and captain Mauro Balomaga in the dock at the Tauranga District Court.
BRUCE MERCER/Fairfax NZ
SENTENCED: The Rena's navigating officer, Leonil Relon (left) and captain Mauro Balomaga in the dock at the Tauranga District Court.

The men responsible for causing New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster by grounding the Rena off Tauranga's coast have been sentenced to seven months in jail.

Name suppression for the cargo ship captain Mauro Balomaga, 44, and navigator Leonil Relon, 37, was today lifted after appearing before Judge Robert Wolff at the Tauranga District Court.

They both faced charges under the Maritime Transport Act for operating a vessel in a manner likely to cause danger, under the Resource Management Act (RMA) for discharging a contaminant and three charges under the Crimes Act for altering ship documents.

Balomaga also faced an additional charge of altering ship documents. They pleaded guilty to all charges.

Wolff said there were "systematic failures" in the ship's navigation which was the captain's responsibility.

"On the journey from Napier to Tauranga you Mr Balomaga were obsessed with the end to arrive at pilot station outside Tauranga by 3am. That put in train an unfortunate series of events that ultimately resulted in the accident," he said.

"In short the quality of navigation was such that you didn't have an accurate idea of precisely where you were. Your vessel did not have the appropriate charts that it ought to have had.

"After the collision you altered documents in order to obfuscate and cover up the reason the vessel collided with the reef."

Wolff told Relon his decisions "ultimately" caused the Rena to crash into the Astrolabe Reef on October 5.

"Having struck the reef there was an event the like of which this country has not seen before," he said.

"There was substantial ecological damage to marine wildlife and seabirds, the food resources of the indigenous people who reside on the coast, the incomes of those whose living is made from the sea ... and an entire community was sent into shock."

However, Wolff said he showed "true and genuine remorse".

SENTENCING WELCOMED

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) director Keith Manch welcomed the sentencing, which held the two men to account for their "failures" in relation to the Rena grounding that resulted in tonnes of heavy fuel to leak into the sea.

"This grounding has had significant consequences for the Bay of Plenty community and the country as a whole. Today marks a milestone in the response, which is still underway," he said.

Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby said he respected the judge's decision. "A longer sentence wouldn't have proved anything or assisted really."

"The real concern has always been the damage to the environment and the damage to [Tauranga's] reputation as a tourist destination," he said.

"That has been more important than whatever sentence the captain and master may be given."

A 40-page summary of facts read in court today said the crew had not complied with "basic navigation practices" before the ship ran aground, cutting corners and sailing hazardously. The ship had altered course during the day leading up to the grounding and attempts had been made to cover it up.

Manch said the men had breached the "basic fundamental principles" of safe navigation.

"If there is a need to deviate from a prepared passage plan, the alterations must be plotted and the new projected path carefully assessed to ensure all potential navigational hazards are identified," he said.

In a separate prosecution, MNZ has also laid a charge under the RMA against the owner of Rena, Daina Shipping Co. The case was adjourned without plea until July 18.

Daina acknowledge the sentence imposed on the captain and navigation officer, and said it would continue to meet its responsibilities as their employer by ensuring their welfare and that of their families as they complete their sentences.

"The Rena owners and our insurers continue to be closely involved in managing the response to the grounding, especially through the activities of our salvage and recovery teams - Svitzer & Smit and Braemar Howells," it said.

"There are many complex legal, environmental and community issues still to be resolved from the grounding and we are committed to working with all affected parties to achieve a satisfactory conclusion."

Balomaga's lawyer, Paul Mabey QC, who argued for home detention, said the captain was remorseful.

The decision to alter documents would have been made by two men "in a bad state of affairs" to divert any enquirer from what actually happened.

"They knew it was being recorded [on the black box]. Discussions were made on the bridge. That gives an idea of their state of mind," Mabey said.

"It was hopeless case of a cover up. It was never going to work."

Mabey said the discussions were recorded and subject to outside evidence.

Crown solicitor Rob Ronayne said the cover up was admitted after forensic examination of log entry, Mabey contended the information was volunteered.

"Because in the light of day and calm reflection that my client realised what he had done was utterly stupid. Within the sentencing function, you can't rule out home detention as non starter."

Colin Reeder, chairman of the Te Moana a toi iwi leaders forum, read out a victim impact statement.

He said tangata whenua had forgiven the captain and first officer.

"The sentencing of the captain and mate, whom have taken responsibility for the disaster, would seem to be a way of mitigating our anger and rage by directing it at them.

"However, as tangata whenua realise that they were only a cog in the machine that caused this disaster, we would rather direct our anger and rage at the system that allowed this to happen.

"The two men made a mistake that was generated by a need to save time. The root cause must be fixed as the potential will still be there after these two are sentenced. We won't be satisfied until this is remedied.

"Through restorative justice, Tangata whenua have forgiven the defendants, who were able to apologise to the community. That apology has been accepted. We do not however forgive the system that may allow this to happen."

THE RENA CRASH

An interim report from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) released in March said the Rena was travelling at 17 knots (31.5kph) when it hit the reef.

The ship had left Napier on the morning of October 4. About 15 minutes after midnight on October 5 Tauranga Harbour Control told the ship it had to be at the pilot station off Tauranga by 3am to make the time window for pilotage.

Until about 1.30am, the Rena's ground track had been approximately parallel to, and about a quarter of a nautical mile to the south of, the planned passage, the TAIC report said.

At 1.35am the captain and navigation officer had a telephone conversation in which the captain agreed to alter course to shorten the distance to the pilot station. The navigation officer had already started to progressively make that alteration, with his plan being to navigate closer to Astrolabe Reef.

At 1.42am, when the Rena's position was taken from the GPS, the difference between the ship's gyro heading - the direction of the vessel as read on a compass - and its ground track - its track in relation to the seabed - was two degrees southward towards Astrolabe Reef.

By 1.50am the Rena's ground track had shifted about 11 degrees from its heading at 1.20am.

"At this point the Rena was making directly for the reef," the TAIC report said.

The interim report did not explain why the ship veered off course, with that analysis being left for TAIC's final report.

About 815 containers of the 1368 on board have so far been taken ashore, while 1041 tonnes of waste were collected in beach clean-ups, and 2410 dead birds were collected of which 1448 were oiled.

In February then-Environment Minister Nick Smith said a "crude estimate" of $130 million had been made for the cost of cleaning up after the disaster.