Richard Moore: What could cover hell they wrought

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Sitting in Courtroom 1 at Tauranga District Court last Friday, I was finally able to see two of the men responsible for parking the MV Rena off Papamoa Beach and all that has followed since then.

I'd been wanting to see their faces since October 5 last year when their container vessel hit the Astrolabe Reef.

At full speed.

Mortally wounding her.

Leading to a spill of heavy fuel oil that killed an estimated 20,000 birds and an unaccounted for total of fish and marine life.

And ruining the livelihoods of many sea-reliant businesses in the Bay - including firms such as Stuart Arnold's Dolphin Seafaris.

Mind you it has been good for security guards and their companies.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

Maritime New Zealand unilaterally closed the beaches to local residents and media - except for orchestrated events - and spent $800,000 on security to keep locals at bay.

Funnily enough, while I was watching the skipper Mauro Arieves Balomaga and the navigation officer Leonil Relon I didn't feel the animosity I once had towards them.

Seven months ago, after spending an entire day trudging along an oil-blackened Papamoa Beach photographing the devastation caused by the incoming black tides, I wrote on my website:

"You may think I sound angry - I'm so beyond angry because Papamoa is my beach. Every one of its 35,000 residents thinks of it as their beach.

"I want to talk with the Rena's captain ...

"As I talk to this man I will want to ram my fist into his face several times. I better have someone near me because otherwise I may not stop."

Time has cooled my anger, as has the fact that what could have been a complete disaster with a potential 1600-odd tonnes of oil washing ashore was limited to just a disaster of about 350 tonnes.

So as I watched Balomaga and Relon in the dock, sitting impassively under the gaze and cameras of the media, I felt sorry for them. And their friends and families in the courtroom.

Talk about Christians and lions.

The Rena's officers knew their careless actions had badly hurt a community and they appeared ready for whatever came.

Resigned and remorseful.

My heart hardened a little at the details of their trying to cover up the causes of the grounding, but they were men in a panic, many others would do the same.

They were under pressure to reach Tauranga and avoid late penalties.

Logic said these were only a matter of hundreds of dollars, nothing to risk destroying a region for, but clearly they were men with hard taskmasters.

Again I recalled the dead oiled albatross being lifted into a cardboard box.

The little blue penguins washed up, smothered by Vegemite-like fuel.

The seal pup being opened up at the Oiled Wildlife Response Facility to see what killed it.

Yup, the heart grew colder still.

Then there was the trip to Matakana with Greenpeace to bury a diving petrel and penguin killed by the Rena's discharge.

And, even today, the little blobs of oil that still wash up on Papamoa Beach discolouring the high-water mark with their rainbow-like leechings.

And what about the region's businesses?

My heart returned to stone.

Come on, Judge Robert Wolff, I thought, what are you going to clobber them with?

The Crown wants a start of two years' jail, the defence - you'd expect - would be happy to get away with that.

As soon as the judge began his final comments you knew the sentence was not going to be severe.

When the phrase "seven months in prison" was mentioned it was an expected anti-climax that numbed me.

Was that all those tens of thousands of birds were worth?

Or the damage done to the local economy?

Or the thousands of volunteers who worked to clean up the beaches?

Or the massive cost of the salvage and clean-up?

There certainly wasn't a deterrent value in the officers' punishment, maybe that will come when the owning company appears in court in a month or so.

In the meantime, we of the Bay will continue to try to recover from the almost-visit of the Rena - and avoid oil on the beaches for years to come.

Not to mention paying for the clean-up operations.

And the owners will continue to push their captains and crews for faster journeys that mean more profits but more risks as well.

richard@richardmoore.com

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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