TAURANGA, New Zealand (Dow Jones)–Several beaches on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island were closed to the public from Thursday and operations at the Port of Tauranga (POT.NZ) will be suspended overnight, after oil and containers from a damaged cargo vessel washed ashore, with concerns that things might get worse as salvage efforts remain fraught with danger.
“It is really horrible. I really didn’t think it would affect us. It’s awful,” said Cathy Lake, 40, a resident of Tauranga. “I just don’t know how it could have happened.”
The MV Rena cargo vessel had struck the Astrolabe Reef Oct. 5 on its way to Tauranga, and oil leaks were detected soon after. Salvagers moved in the following day and began pumping oil to a bunker barge late Sunday, but bad weather hampered the operation.
A stress fracture to the hull of the 21-year old vessel, which triggered fears the boat may break in two, is making efforts to remove around 1,000 tons of oil and more 1,000 containers off the boat difficult.
“The best case scenario is we get everything off (the boat), but what’s the reality? It’s incredibly dangerous, it’s incredibly complex and we have to make sure it’s a safe environment for the people working,” said Maritime New Zealand’s Manager of Salvage Operations Bruce Anderson.
Much of the damage has been done. At least 350 tons of oil has already leaked from the boat and 88 containers which have fallen off the ship are now washing ashore.
Maritime New Zealand estimates several hundred sea birds have been killed by the oil spill and is concerned for both the local seal and the endangered New Zealand dotterel population.
Several beaches, including Mount Maunganui beach, have been closed while the damage is assessed and the beaches cleaned.
“It is worrying how this is going to affect us for the summer and how that is going to affect the local business,” said another Tauranga resident Keith Brown, 67.
Much of the community’s income comes from the tourist industry. Mount Maunganui beach and neighbouring Papamoa are both popular holiday spots and the nearby port is used by cruise liners. Port of Tauranga has suspended operations overnights due to containers and from the ship have found their way into shipping channels.
“The reality is nobody knows (if this will be sorted by Summer). The reality is there are just way too many variables,” said Minister for Transport Steven Joyce who said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of compensation for operators that have lost their income as a result of the disaster.
MV Rena’s Filipino captain and navigator have been charged with operating a ship in a manner causing unnecessary danger to persons or property and the ship’s owner has come out and apologized for the damage caused.
“We want to say that we are deeply sorry for the situation that has arisen and the threat you are now facing from fuel oil from the vessel washing up on the beautiful beaches on your part of the world,” said Diamantis Mantos, managing director of Costamere Shipping Company.
“We assure those affected by these events that owners and managers of Rena take their responsibilities seriously, we will cooperate with the Transport Accident Investigation Commissioner of New Zealand in their inquiry and we recognize in due course liability for what has happened will be determined.”
-By Lucy Craymer, Dow Jones Newswires