Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Rena oil spill: masks could be issued

Rena oil spill

Anyone wishing to volunteer should call 0800 645 774 or email iccrena@gmail.com with ‘Volunteers – 1 for all’ in the subject line, full name, contact number and relevant experience.

The container ship Rena. Last night it was listing at 18deg. Photo / Maritime New Zealand
The container ship Rena. Last night it was listing at 18deg. Photo / Maritime New Zealand

What you need to know:

* Ship's captain was granted name suppression in court this morning

* An estimated 70 containers have fallen off the ship

* Masks could be issued to Tauranga residents near toxic oil leak

* Port of Tauranga is on standby to shutdown operations

* Environment Minister Nick Smith says this is NZ's "worst maritime environmental disaster"

Maritime New Zealand is considering issuing face masks to people living near beaches affected by oil from crippled cargo ship Rena.

The Rena struck Astrolabe Reef, 20km off Tauranga, at full speed early last Wednesday.

Its captain has appeared this morning in the Tauranga District Court over the incident and has been remanded on bail.

Port of Tauranga has said today it's ready to shutdown operations if the containers which have spilled from the ship threaten incoming vessels.

The situation with the Rena has deteriorated daily as poor weather moves the massive ship around on the reef, and efforts to offload its 1700 tonnes of fuel oil have repeatedly failed.

Maritime New Zealand's director Catherine Taylor was this morning asked about the smell of oil in sea spray on the beaches.

"The way in which the oil has moved through the water, and how quickly it has moved, will be causing that,'' she said.

"We are concerned and we will be considering issuing masks to people.''

Containers reach Motiti Island

Meanwhile containers spilled from the Rena have reached shore at Motiti Island off the coast of Tauranga.

About 70 containers fell from the vessel amid heavy seas last night.

Maritime New Zealand said some containers had washed ashore on Motiti Island this morning, but could not confirm how many.

The agency said the eleven containers containing hazardous substances are still on the vessel and are not among the up to 70 estimated overboard.

The ship was listing at 18deg - sparking a navigation warning about the possibility of falling and submerged containers - after being at 11deg for much of the past week.

Maritime New Zealand this morning confirmed the Navy ship Endeavour had reported the loss of the containers.

More containers were expected to fall off as five metre swells and 30 knot winds continue to batter the stricken vessel today, a Maritime spokeswoman said.

"They more it's tilting the more they're just going to keep tipping off... The ones at the top are coming off first."

Simon Boxall, from the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton, said the fallen containers would be a hazard to shipping.

They often float just below the surface of the water and are difficult for ships to track, he said.

"There should also be concern as to the contents of the containers. This could range from household good to chemicals."

Mr Boxall said the main concern for authorities should be securing the containers.

Captain in court

The 44-year-old captain of the stricken vessel MV Rena has appeared in the Tauranga District Court this morning, facing a charge under section 65 of the Maritime Transport Act of operating a vessel causing unnecessary danger or risk to a person or property.

His manner in court this morning was described as 'calm'.

He was ordered to surrender his passport and remanded to an unknown Tauranga address.

The judge has granted him name suppression to protect the integrity of the court process and to stop the man from being approached outside court.

The man, who appeared in court wearing a thick orange high-visibility jacket and flanked by three Corrections officers, was ordered to reappear on October 19, when further charges may be laid.

The charge he already faces carries a maximum penalty of $10,000, or a maximum term of imprisonment of 12 months.

The grounding of the Rena is believed to have happened on the captain's 44th birthday.

Police warn public over containers

Police have threatened to prosecute anyone found taking goods from containers that spilled off the grounded cargo ship Rena overnight.

Inspector Karl Wright-St Clair said the containers remained the property of the ship owners.

He said people have a statutory responsibility to notify authorities about their location.

They would be dealt with by police if they were caught interfering with the containers, he said.

"I can't reiterate enough, please do not attempt to open any of the containers. Not only do they remain the property of the original owners or insurers, they may contain hazardous material and need to be dealt with carefully and appropriately."

The Rena started moving in 4m swells yesterday - forcing an emergency evacuation of the crew.

It was revealed yesterday that maritime officials turned down an early offer to have two barges help remove oil from the ship.

Hundreds of tonnes of oil leaked from the hull yesterday.

Our reporter at the scene has described the beaches he's seen today as "coated black".

Port of Tauranga ready to shut

Port of Tauranga is ready to shut down its operations ahead of a busy cruise ship season if containers spilled from the stricken cargo ship Rena threaten incoming vessels.

The Bay of Plenty harbour master has warned vessels against travelling in the area between the stranded ship and nearby Motiti Island.

That has raised fears for the operations of Port of Tauranga, which is set to host 58 vessels, including six cruise ships, this week.

Its chief executive Mark Cairns said the containers could be dangerous to incoming vessels if they moved to a different area or if officials "lost track of them".

The oil spill was a "nightmare" scenario for the port and the wider Bay of Plenty, he said.

"It's just an absolute nightmare. I feel sick about it. It's really heartbreaking to look out at the beach."

Most of the containers spilled so far had fallen into an area south east of the Rena, near Motiti Island, Mr Cairns said.

He said the position of the containers could change quickly with changing weather conditions and currents.

"It's a really dynamic situation. It all depends on where the containers go."

The first large cruise ship of the upcoming summer season arrived at the Port of Tauranga at 8am.

Rena is grounded about 22 kilometres from the Mount Entrance to the port.

Maritime New Zealand: 'no quick fix'

Maritime NZ director Catherine Taylor told a meeting of about 400 worried Bay of Plenty residents that bad weather had hampered efforts to remove fuel oil from the Rena, and the situation was dangerous.

"We are at the mercy of the sea. It is not a quick fix," said Ms Taylor.

"I must prepare you for tomorrow morning - it will be much worse."

She urged people to work with authorities and register as volunteers, rather than cleaning up oil on their own.

"It is a bucket and spades operation," she said. "It will take some time."

Minister heckled

Environment Minister Nick Smith said the grounding was New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster.

Residents attending the meeting at Tauranga Boys' College gasped and shook their heads as they were shown pictures of oil spreading for kilometres around the ship. They were told 17 live birds had been recovered, but 53 had been found dead.

One local appeared to sum up the mood of the meeting, saying: "Minister Smith, please call a state of emergency so you really can throw every resource at this disaster."

Residents demanded to know whether the shipping company would pay for repopulating the affected wildlife areas, what dangerous cargo was aboard and what would happen if the ship sank.

A Greenpeace representative drew loud applause when he called on Mr Smith to stop using the dispersant Corexit 9500, which he called "nasty stuff".

Many heckled the minister as he tried to defend the chemical, some shouting, "It's banned overseas".

Another woman demanded: "There is 18,000 metres of boom evidently sitting in a warehouse in Auckland. Why is it not being used? We've got some equipment in our own backyard - why are we not using it?"

Waves of up to 4m knocked the Rena into a new position on Astrolabe Reef, 20km off Tauranga, early yesterday.

Efforts to offload its 1700 tonnes of fuel oil have repeatedly failed amid ferocious weather.

Maritime NZ on-scene commander Nick Quinn said a Navy rating received moderate injuries when a member of the salvage team fell on top of him while climbing off the ship during yesterday morning's evacuation.

Nobody was on the ship last night as the salvage team waited for better conditions to resume pumping the Rena's fuel load into the tanker Awanuia - which was being repaired after smashing into the ship in high seas.

Asked if there was a danger of the ship tipping over, Transport Minister Steven Joyce said there was no indication it would break up or sink, but the situation was "uncharted territory".

"It is entirely unusual for a ship to run itself onto a reef at 17 knots ... All of it is unusual so in this situation there is no copy book you can refer to," he said.

Containers of concern

Mr Joyce said all the ship's fuel tanks and vents had been sealed, so if it did break up or sink, the biggest concern would be the containers coming off.

If that happened, the Navy would work with Maritime NZ to find each container.

A Maritime NZ spokesman said seven containers stacked at the back of the Rena were empty, so the agency was less worried about them falling off the ship.

"We're probably getting close to that tipping point, but we're less worried because the weight isn't sitting seven-high on the lean. If those containers were full ... we'd be much more worried.

"But obviously a ship like that shouldn't be on an 18deg lean."

Mr Smith believed that the "tragic event" was "absolutely inevitable" from the point where the Rena struck the reef at full-speed early last Wednesday.

"The advice I'm receiving is that the amount of oil released over the last 24 hours is five-fold compare to the amount released in earlier periods, and that the situation over the coming days from an environmental perspective is going to get significantly worse."

Offer of help to pump oil declined

It emerged yesterday that on the day the Rena struck the reef, Maritime NZ declined an offer of two inflatable barges which could pump up to 100 tonnes of oil at a time.

The offer was made by Ronald Winstone, of Lancer Industries, who said the two barges would have easily emptied the ship of toxic oil in the four days of clear weather after the Rena ran aground.

"It would have taken them 17 trips to pump all the fuel off the ship and three or four days wouldn't have been unrealistic for that to have happened.

"It doesn't make sense why they didn't start pumping the oil earlier when they had the equipment to do it."

A Maritime NZ spokesman said Mr Winstone's offer was logged with its operations division, and "if they needed it they would have followed it up".

- NZ Herald

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