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New Zealand’s Worst Maritime Disaster: Yet Another Oil Spill

by Tina Gerhardt

HONOLULU - One week after the container ship Rena struck and got stuck on Astrolabe Reef, leading to massive oil leaks, New Zealand has declared the oil spill its worst maritime disaster.

In the wake of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, area residents and environmentalists are concerned that the spill and its effects on the health of those who live, work and vacation in the area will be downplayed. (Photo: Maritime New Zealand) The ship flying under a Liberian flag is located about 12 nautical miles off the coast of New Zealand, in the Bay of Plenty.

The amount of oil gushing forth has increased over the past week. Tar and oil balls, some the size of platters, have washed ashore along 16 miles of the North Island’s beaches. It is estimated that 1300 to 1700 tons of oil remain on the ship. The first priority is to pump the remaining oil off the ship.

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) has urged the public to stay off local beaches. About 20 teams of trained persons totalling 250 persons are on the beaches, cleaning up the oil. And MNZ is recruiting and training volunteers for beach clean up.

According to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who visited the area on Wednesday, another concern is that the vessel might break splinter apart. Fracture lines have been spotted on the ship. And worries exist that the stern - which remains firmly lodged, while the remainder of the ship has been moving with the waves – might break off.

Storms are currently hindering attempts to unload the ship, which is another top priority, since the ship was carrying approximately 1368 containers, an estimated 11 of which are reported to contain hazardous substances. Four containers include ferrosilicon, which can pose a fire hazard, if it comes into contact with water.

The ship is lodged on the reef at an angle that varies from 6-18 degrees. As a result of the angle and the storm’s winds and waves, about 70 containers have already tumbled into the waters.

The ship’s crew of 25 has not been harmed and has been evacuated off the ship.

The ship’s master, whose name is being withheld, has been arrested and was charged Wednesday “for operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk.”

Shipping vessels have been re-routed, so as not to come into contact with the oil and containers in the area.

Environmental conservationists are already on hand at the Wildlife Response Center washing oil-covered blue penguins and seabirds, including shags, petrels and dottrels, at a rehabilitation center. They have about 41 birds in their care. Thus far, 200 dead birds have been collected.

Seals are being trapped in area waters to check them for oil. Currently, five seals are at the response center.

In the wake of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, area residents and environmentalists are concerned that the spill and its effects on the health of those who live, work and vacation in the area will be downplayed.

Greenpeace New Zealand campaigner Steve Abel said that the “Rena disaster is … a terrible reminder of the devastating impact that oil spills can have on our wildlife, coastlines and livelihoods.”

Greenpeace has called on the government to reconsider its plans for deep sea exploratory drilling off the shore of the North and South Islands.

Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist who covers climate change, international negotiations and energy policy. Her work has appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Grist, Environment News Service, In These Times, The Progressive and The Nation, on GRIT tv, WBAI and the National Radio Project.

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