Workers Hasten to Halt Oil Spill from Listing Ship Rena off the Coast of New Zealand
Conditions Thursday improved sufficiently to allow workers to inspect the fractured hull of the cargo vessel MV Rena, which is foundering on a reef off New Zealand‘s North Island. Authorities are rushing to remove the remaining 1,350 tons of fuel off the ship before it splits in two – which could release the bulk of the oil into the sea just 12 nautical miles (22km) off the coast of Tauranga. The oil is spread along 50 miles (60km) of beaches between Mount Maunganui in the north and the Maketu estuary in the south.
It was just over one week ago that the 775-foot Liberian-flagged container ship struck the Astrolabe Reef en route to New Zealand’s largest port. A response team was immediately called, despite no initial leakage, and mobilized over several days. The small outflow was dealt with locally, while more than 200 persons readied to assist with the aftermath.
But weather conditions deteriorated over the weekend, making fuel removal dangerous. With seas reaching 12-feet high, rescue operators stood by while the ruptures accelerated and oil began seeping into the ocean. An estimated 350 tons of fuel flowed from the wreckage: congealed in the cold seas, it reached the shoreline in cowpie-like clumps that blotted the white sandy beach and threatened the delicate ecosystem of the Bay of Plenty.
Rare Seabirds and Marine Life at Risk
The spill tainted the habitat of several vulnerable native species, including the endangered New Zealand Dotterel. According to the Dept of Conservation, only about 1,700 remain of this small wading shorebird that nests on these beaches in September. It’s not yet known how the spill will impact the dwindling numbers of Dotterels or other seabirds, like the Little Blue Penguin – the tiniest of its species at nary 10-inches high. But numerous seabirds have been found dead, along with several seals; as workers from the National Oiled Wildlife Response Team (NOWRT) scrambled to locate, de-oil and rehabilitate affected wildlife.
Yesterday seas had calmed and a trio of workers were airlifted to the reef to inspect the listing ship which showed visible signs of deterioration, including a vertical crack in the hull. More than 88 of an original 1,368 shipping containers have fallen off the boat: 11 of which are listed as having hazardous or dangerous contents.
“A Long, Hard Slog”
Onshore, Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) National On Scene Commander Nick Quinn was overwhelmed by the turnout of volunteers. “We have enormous support from the local community, who have turned up willing and ready to work,” Quinn said. “This is hugely appreciated and demonstrates the passion the local community have for their area. We are working hard to minimize the impact of this spill on this region.” An estimated 143 tons of matter has been collected from the beach, and he continued, “Our focus is on recovering oil from wherever we find it and we will go in day by day until this is over,” – calling the task “a long hard slog.”
MV Rena’s captain has been charged, and investigations into the wreck – which occurred on a well-charted reef – have commenced. MNZ representative Linda Thompson indicated it was “much too early to say” whether the incident would have a long term impact on shipping procedures and environmental protection. But industry leaders are urging New Zealand to centralize shipping, according to Business Day. The creation of a hub could minimize large vessel traffic in and out of other ports, and, “reduce the inherent environmental risks to New Zealand of random and unplanned growth of larger international vessels transiting around the coastline,” according to industry expert Rod Grout
While the incident appeared minor as compared to last year’s oil rig catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, for the tiny country of New Zealand, it was monumental. Minister for the Environment Dr. Nick Smith called it the nation’s worst environmental disaster, and has enlisted specialists from the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and Holland to assist the consortium, which includes domestic agencies, a charity and university.
Leading the response is MNZ, established in 1993 to uphold New Zealand’s environmental regulations and prevent marine pollution within their Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200nm out to sea.
Updated: Oct. 13, 10:00 p.m. PST
The death toll among seabirds from oil spilled off the wreckage of MV Rena has risen to 1,000 according to Maritime New Zealand (MNZ).
Authorities confirmed the growing tally, but added 92 oiled birds had been saved, including 17 endangered New Zealand Dotterels. Wildlife workers are endeavoring to capture another five dozen of this rare shorebird and house them in a specially constructed aviary, to ensure survival of the species.
Forecasted westerly breezes should keep some oil off the beaches – buying the salvage team time, as they set up platforms and pumping operations to evacuate fuel from the foundering ship. Meanwhile workers and some 3,000 volunteers have collected and transferred a total of 220 tons of oil waste which has already washed ashore.
Salvagers have halted use of the dispersant Corexit 9500: some parties argued the use of toxic dispersants could be harmful to sea life and marine mammals – although dispersants have been found to be a lesser evil than the oil itself in studies: MNZ Director Catherine Taylor merely deemed the dispersant ineffective.
Updated: Oct. 16 07:00 a.m PST
Portions of the beach in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty have been reopened, Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) announced – thanks to what was called an “overwhelming” response by nearly 5,000 community volunteers as well as members of the military, in removing 618 tons of oil and contaminated debris.
But progress has been sluggish in dealing with MV Rena12 miles offshore. The salvage process is painstaking slow as officials attempt to make the platform and procedures as safe as possible, in order to evacuate what oil and fuel they can before weather conditions deteriorate late Monday.
With 140 live birds treated – and 36 endangered Dotterels now in captivity – fewer dead birds are being reported. But scientists fear for the ones they miss – and the young. It is springtime in the Southern Hemisphere and many of the seabirds are breeding. “There’s a difficult question we’re facing – if we find an oiled penguin sitting on its nest and collect it for cleaning, you could save its life, but it will probably mean its clutch won’t be reared this season,” said Bob Zuur, a marine biologist with World Wildlife Fund New Zealand. “But if you leave it, it might die and the clutch would die in any case.”