By Lucy Craymer And Rebecca Howard, Wall Street Journal
WELLINGTON—Oil spilling from a cargo vessel stranded off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island is the country’s worst environmental maritime disaster, Environment Minister Nick Smith said on Tuesday, as high waves and strong winds create problems for salvagers trying to limit the environmental damage.
Maritime New Zealand said the MV Rena had leaked more oil overnight due to fresh damage to the duct keel, and that oil from earlier leaks was now reaching the coastline.
“The ship has sustained some damage from current movements and there is a significant amount of oil leaking from the vessel. This is estimated at 130-350 tons,” Maritime New Zealand said in a press release.
A spokesman for Mr. Smith confirmed that the minister said on Tuesday at a briefing in the affected area that it was the worst environmental maritime disaster in New Zealand.
Prior to this disaster, the worst New Zealand had seen was in 1998 when a Korean fishing boat ran aground in Stewart Island with 400 tons of oil spilled. The oil from the Rena cargo ship is threatening a popular coastal area and there are concerns for the petrels, little blue penguins and the seal colonies in the area.
The Rena became stranded on the Astrolabe Reef in the early hours of Wednesday morning, as it headed to Tauranga, and oil leaks were detected soon after. Salvagers moved in on Thursday, and began pumping oil to a bunker barge late on Sunday, but this operation has been hampered by weather conditions. The Rena’s remaining crew of 24 had to be evacuated from the ship early on Tuesday.
“The weather in the area of the ship is poor, with 3- to 4-meter swells and winds of 37 to 46 kilometers per hour,” Maritime New Zealand said. “There has been more damage to the front part of the vessel, and additional flooding in the forward holds.”
The agency said the containers on board, including the ones holding dangerous goods, are all intact on the vessel and that it is monitoring the dangerous-goods containers.
The vessel is carrying four containers of ferrosilicon, a solid matter that can give off hydrogen and cause a fire risk if it comes into contact with water. New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra Co-Operative Group also confirmed it had 89 containers of “dry product” on board the ship, destined for North and Southeast Asia and West Africa.
Environmental cleanup and rescue teams are combing the white sandy beach at Mount Maunganui and others along the coastline to deal with seabirds that have been caught up in the oil spill.
The Department of Health has warned people to stay off the beaches and out of the water, and to not touch anything with oil on it.