Bad weather heads for stricken ship

By Matthew Theunissen, Herald Online staff, Newstalk ZB

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

A severe weather watch has been issued for the area where a container ship has been leaking oil off the coast of Tauranga.

The MV Rena has been stuck on the Astrolabe Reef since Wednesday.

It has already spewed 20 tonnes of fuel oil into the sea, sparking a massive operation to try to offload the 2000 tonnes it's still carrying.

The Navy is on its way to help the clean-up effort, with the HMNZS Endeavour scheduled to arrive in Tauranga around six this evening.

Maritime New Zealand spokesman Ross Henderson says the barge Awanuia is being prepared to pump oil off the Rena but the operation will take several hours to set up.

He says more oil spill equipment is being loaded on to two naval vessels to trial how it might be used in the response.

Bad weather on the way

This afternoon the MetService put out a severe weather watch for Northland, Auckland, Coromandel Peninsula, Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, Taupo and Taranaki.

Weather is set to deteriorate in those areas from tomorrow afternoon with rain and strong north to northeast winds developing.

The watch also applies to areas of the South Island with Buller, Westland and Fiordland also in the firing line.

Public health warning after spill

Earlier today a public health warning was issued for Bay of Plenty residents not to eat seafood from waters around the Rena.

Medical Officer of Health Jim Miller said no shellfish or fin fish should be eaten from waters with visible oil contamination.

He's highlighted Motiti Island as an area that should be avoided for the collection of shellfish and warned against consuming any seafood with an off, or petrol-like, smell.

Although there is no evidence of the oil spill reaching the coastline, conditions are continually changing, he said, and the health advisory will remain in place until further notice.

Recovery efforts underway

Prime Minister John Key has flown to Tauranga today to see the situation for himself as fears of major environmental disaster mount.

A team 10 Australian personnel arrived yesterday to join the operation.

National on scene commander Rob Service said most of them had worked during the Montara oil spill response in the Timor Sea in 2009.

Two ocean-going barges Northern Quest and Phoenix also left port this morning carrying specialist equipment and trained oil spill responders. They are tasked with recovering quantities of heavy fuel oil in the water.

However he said: "The removal of fuel from the ship remains the top priority. Pollutants on board the vessel including paint, grease, hydraulic oils and lubricants are being hand-carried off the vessel onto a small support vessel,'' Mr Service said.

Ship's owners hire local PR company

In a statement issued today Merlin Consulting said it had been appointed as a media contact and liaison for Costamare Inc. - the parent company of Daina Shipping which owns the MV Rena.

The statement said evaluations so far indicated the ship's hull stresses are within allowable limits and there's no deterioration of the ship's condition.

Daina Shipping says minimising any impact to New Zealand's coastline is the absolute priority for Costamare Inc.

"The owners, managers and operators of the RENA, along with the vessel's crew, are working tirelessly in cooperation with the authorities, dedicated emergency responders and salvage teams to ensure this incident is dealt with as swiftly, comprehensively and professionally as possible," the statement read.

Another penguin adds to oily wildlife tally

Wildlife rescue teams were also continuing to scour the coast for affected wildlife today.

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

All are in good condition and being washed and cared for, Maritime New Zealand said.

The response to the looming disaster has been widely criticised for the time it has taken to get underway.

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.

Bay of Plenty residents told of their outrage over the time it was taking to respond. Brett Keller, of Tauranga Marine Charters, said yesterday 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."

Watch an oil-free penguin below.

- APNZ

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