Matthew Theunissen is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Anger at slow action over oil spill

Locals are angry at the response time. Photo / Doug Sherring
Locals are angry at the response time. Photo / Doug Sherring

Prime Minister John Key is flying into Tauranga today to view the looming environmental disaster that is the stricken container ship as anger grows over the time it has taken to respond.

The widespread criticism comes as expert crews prepare to start work cleaning up the 20 tonnes of oil estimated to have leaked out of the 236m Rena - four days after it hit Astrolabe Reef.

Maritime New Zealand says oil recovery teams are heading out on the water this morning to collect oil spilled from the cargo vessel Rena.

The fuel vessel Awanuia is due to arrive today to help offload the 2000 tonnes of oil threatening to spill into the Bay of Plenty. By tomorrow, four naval vessels will be present.

10 Australian Defence personnel who'd had experience working on the Montara oil spill response in the Timor Sea in 2009 will be helping with the on-water recovery operation.

No further oil has been reported as seeping from the vessel overnight. Fresh oil found yesterday afternoon had dispersed by last night.

Another oiled little blue penguin has been recovered and taken to the wildlife facility in Te Maunga. That brings the total number of oiled birds recovered to eight.

The 5km oil slick across the sea is already being cited as exposing the dangers of deep sea oil exploration.

Green Party oceans spokesman Gareth Hughes said the inability of New Zealand to cope was exposed by the need to call on Australia for help. "We have to put a moratorium on even testing [oil] wells in New Zealand waters until we can prove that our oil spill response plans are adequate."

Environment Minister Nick Smith said yesterday it was possible to manage the risks of exploration. He said proposed laws would ensure the proper protection was in place when they were passed.

Maritime pollution response co-ordinator Mick Courtnell said it had the potential to be similar to the Gulf of Mexico disaster which left the Florida coast knee-deep in thick oil.

Cracks were visible in the hull of the Rena yesterday and boaties had learned through the marine radio that the front compartment had been crushed by 2m.

"We're not mopping up spilt milk in the kitchen. It could be a long term beach clean-up. If the ship breaks in half and all the oil comes to shore, it will be buckets and spades sort of stuff."

Bay of Plenty residents told of their outrage over the time it was taking to respond. Brett Keller, of Tauranga Marine Charters, said the past four days of calm weather should have been used to get containers off.

"From what I've seen so far they're woefully under-prepared," he said.

"People here are getting more annoyed by the day by the lack of action. It's been four days now and still nothing."

Earth 2 Oceans dive centre owner Rachel Rolston said she was "horrified" by the amount of time it was taking. "There seem to have been slow, ill-equipped and inefficient responses from the organisations and departments that should have been doing something about this. People here are angry. They're really angry."

Mark Tucker, operator of sight-seeing company Orca Explorer, said he felt authorities were not doing enough to soak up the oil already in the water. "If the wind turns on shore it will hit the beaches. It's like tar, it'll be impossible to clean up."

On Thursday, Tucker heard Maritime NZ officials trying to reach Rena's captain through maritime radio channel 12. "The officer said the captain was sleeping in his cabin and refused to wake him up."

The oil spill was not enough to put off Mt Maunganui's Gary Plane, 52, from taking his 90hp runabout out yesterday.

He steered clear from Astrolabe, his favourite spot, but still came home with 19 snapper and tarakihi. "I'm worried about that ship breaking," he said. "That whole area is a very unique eco-system. It will be a disaster. That ship must have been miles off course. It should never have happened."

- additional reporting Celeste Gorrell Anstiss


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