Editorial: Rena response should leave us more secure

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The report found Maritime NZ improved quickly and found a way to cope effectively with the Rena disaster. Photo / APN
The report found Maritime NZ improved quickly and found a way to cope effectively with the Rena disaster. Photo / APN

One of the immediate impulses following the grounding of the Rena on the Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga was to wonder if this country should have marine disaster equipment and expertise of its own. Then there would be no need to wait, for example, for a sea crane to arrive from Singapore. But such an investment could be justified only if the response to the Rena oil spill had been hapless and haphazard.

Happily, the independent review of the incident by former GCSB director Simon Murdoch suggests that was far from the case. His conclusions and recommendations are, therefore, far more mundane.

Mr Murdoch concludes the response to the Rena was at first flawed but ultimately effective. The pressures occasioned by the grounding caused Maritime New Zealand to "buckle initially" across its systems and response machinery. As much might have been anticipated given the Rena created one of the most complex response challenges in the world in years. Additionally, both the incident and the risks far exceeded Maritime NZ's planned response capability.

As such it was bound to be a substantial test, especially for senior managers, who were relatively unseasoned for such a major task.

The report found Maritime NZ improved quickly and found a way to cope effectively. Most of the oil was removed from the ship and its trained people and an army of volunteers dealt with what came ashore.

The final outcome was far from the environmental disaster initially forecast. Indeed, another report released yesterday rejected any idea there would be long-lasting harm to the Bay of Plenty's beaches and fisheries. Such is the resilience of nature.

Mr Murdoch says a common point raised by those interviewed about the results of the response was that "it could have been a lot worse". They felt fate or luck had played a part as a fully laden container ship had held together long enough for the response to gather the strength and organisation to counter the worst of the risk posed by oil pollution. That may be true, but only to an extent. The way the Rena survived for months through a series of storms said much about how strongly modern ships are constructed. This suggests that in the vast majority of groundings or other shipping accidents there will be some time to orchestrate an efficient response.

Despite Maritime NZ's ultimate effectiveness, the review heard several calls to enhance this country's disaster equipment and expertise. One was for a bunker or container barge to be retained here to increase the speed of any transfer of oil from the tanks of a crippled ship. Another was attaching global positioning devices to every container, so they could be tracked if they fell overboard during an accident. Others wanted a statutory receiver of wrecks reinstated to improve oversight of salvage operations.

None of these are included among the review's recommendations. Instead, Mr Murdoch calls for better planning, resourcing and communication between agencies to deal with future oil spills. The Government has responded with a $2 million package to improve the response capability.

The tenor of the recommendations, and the small sum outlaid by the Government, tells its own tale about the response to the Rena. New Zealand's location and its weather make it vulnerable to such incidents. But a substantial investment in equipment and expertise is not warranted if accidents happen rarely and if the response to one as significant as that of the Rena was largely effective.

- NZ Herald

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