Crew abandon stricken ship as New Zealand fears eco disaster
Published 11/10/2011 | 08:39
CREW onboard a container ship stranded and pouring oil off New Zealand's northeastern coast have been forced to abandon the vessel as it was rocked by massive waves.
The ship - carrying 1,700 metric tons of fuel oil and potentially dangerous chemicals - ran aground last week in the Bay of Plenty near Tauranga, 100 miles southeast of Auckland.
While Rena , is more upright after shifting on the reef, it has sustained damage and is leaking a "significant amount" of oil, Maritime New Zealand claimed.
"The Rena is still intact, but it is moving around in the weather conditions. "All personnel have now been taken off the vessel as a precautionary measure."
Nick Smith, the Environment Minister, described the "tragic" sight of large sticky globules of oil washing ashore on pristine beaches as "inevitable after the ship ran aground".
"The amount of oil that has been released over the last 24 hours is five-fold what was released in the earlier period, and that situation over the coming days, from an environmental perspective, is going to get significantly worse," Dr Smith said.
But he warned frustrated residents who have started to clean up the oil that it needs to be removed by professionals.
Up to 350 more tonnes of oil poured into the sea after a fuel tank on the stricken 47,230-tonne Rena ruptured during a storm on Monday night.
Conservationists warned of an impending ecological disaster as increasing numbers of seabirds and mammals were threatened by the oil from the Rena, stranded off the Bay of Plenty coastline.
There are special concerns for the New Zealand dotterel, an endangered shorebird of which only 1,200 are thought to be surviving.
Gale-force winds and 12ft swells have been battering the Liberian-flagged ship, forcing it to grind further on to the Astrolabe reef, 12 nautical miles off shore.
Crew members and salvage workers were evacuated by a helicopter and naval vessels on Tuesday after the Rena sent out a "mayday" call.
"They are coming off to stand by until the sea weather abates slightly, then they will go back on board," said Cath Taylor, the director of Maritime New Zealand.
"Things are changing all the time, the weather has not worked for us, it's worked against us and we're being precautionary and ensuring we keep people safe first," she said.
Maritime New Zealand said the ship had sustained further damage to its bow in the rough seas, with more flooding in the forward holds.
That had the helpful effect of improving the list to between 3-6 degrees from 11 degrees, assisting the salvage operation slightly.
A vessel equipped with a large crane is on its way from Australia to begin the task of lifting off the Rena's 2,171 containers.
The salvage crews' priority remains to unload the rest of the heavy fuel oil in the ship's tanks on to a barge, but the operation has been badly disrupted by the weather.
Meanwhile, anger was boiling over in Tauranga and the nearby resort of Mount Maunganui, with locals criticising what they saw as the authorities' slow response to the crisis.
Residents have been ignoring pleas to leave the clean-up work to staff clad in protective clothing and instead headed to the beach armed with spades and buckets to do what they could.
One woman, who said she could smell the oil on the beach from almost a mile away, described the oil "patties" as resembling alien space invaders on the sand.
The Greece-based owners of the ship, Costamare Inc, have so far given no explanation for why the Rena ran aground on the well-charted reef at 17 knots in calm conditions on Oct 5.