Sam Judd

Comment on the environment from nzherald.co.nz columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: Get rid of the wreck

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Photo / APN
Photo / APN

Nearly 30 months after the MV Rena ran aground on the Astrolabe reef in front of the Port of Tauranga, the wreck still sits at the bottom of the ocean.

Many will recall that the momentous occasion of the shipwreck became a political issue during the election lead-up in late 2011, but few would have guessed that it would still be in discussion now.

Owners of the Rena are seeking resource consent to leave the wreck at the bottom of the ocean so that The Swedish Club - which is an elite insurance firm owned by a conglomeration of international shipping companies - can save money.

The ridiculous thing is that there was insurance in place to cover it, the Swedish Club can certainly afford it. If New Zealand decides to make them remove the wreck (as they are required to) they will pay and just pass on the loss to their ultra-wealthy members through their premiums.

They have paid big bucks to contract consultants to create a spin on the situation and have even offered a quiet settlement package of up to $38 million, with over $10 million being contingent on them being able to leave their rubbish under the water.

This has angered one of the local Iwi groups, (all of whom want it gone), the mayor of Tauranga and many others who haven't forgotten that it is down there and still spilling out a mess.

The whole situation angers me too.

On board the ship, there were at least two forty-foot containers full of plastic resin pellets. These are the raw materials that we import into New Zealand to extrude into plastic products. As you can see here, you can find them all over our beaches when they spill out from careless producers' factories and during transport.

But unless you live on one of the East Coast beaches and had a careful look at the high tide line, you might not know that several tonnes have already spilled off the Rena. Even fewer people would know that these beads (which are just like the beads from inside a hacky sack) act like a sponge for toxins in the marine environment and have been proven by Dr Hideshige Takada at the International Pellet Watch lab in Japan, to have concentrations of caner-causing persistent organic pollutants that are "millions of times higher than those in seawater."

Many thousands of resin pellets are still on East Coast beaches from the first container that spilled - you will find them if you look carefully along the high tide line. Just last week more oil and polluting debris washed up after Cyclone Lusi.

But there is still a whole 40-foot container full of resin pellets on the twisted wreck of the Rena and they want to leave it down there. Along with many other harmful materials inside the wreck, the container will inevitably rust away. Long after the foreign owners have gone back to their Medditeranean mansions, tonnes of plastic pellets - that look just like fish eggs - will be released into our marine environment to be consumed by fish that we are out there catching for dinner.

As I continue to say time and again, if we eat fish that have consumed persistent organic pollutants then we are poisoning ourselves, but this time, it is not because of our own littering, it is because the vastly wealthy shipping industry doesn't want to pay for it to be removed.

Their consent application comes even after the Managing Director of The Swedish Club publicly announced in October 2011 that (owners) "Costamare's... cover includes pollution liabilities" and that "The owner's obligations in this situation will be met in full."

It is absurd that they would contend that plastic resin pellets, which are proven to be packed full of toxic chemicals are not classed as pollution. As far as I know, they have conveniently left this problem out of their consent application, describing it as only a visual nuisance. If you look carefully at the header photo in my article here from a couple of years back, you will see that the fish has consumed one of the pellets - clearly far worse than visual pollution.

In their consent application, they have consistently said that it is a dangerous operation to remove the wreck - which is at a depth of 65 metres - but have ironically promoted leaving it there to create a diving attraction. Now although a salvage operation is very different from recreational diving, I have been diving for more than 20 years and I know that going down to more than 60 metres is very dangerous for recreational divers. I would be worried that under-experienced divers would push themselves beyond their limits just to get down deep enough to see it.

It is also very clear that although it will be costly, history tells us that if those who are insured are made to pay, that it is possible to remove the entire ship. In 2011/2012 a salvage team removed 650 tonnes of material from 700 metres down in an area off the coast of Ireland that has arguably much rougher seas than the Bay of Plenty. They did this because of money - the same reason the Swedish Club and Costamare (the owners) want to leave their rubbish at the bottom of our ocean.

It all comes down to whether we want to let the big-wigs from overseas make ridiculous excuses and leave their polluted, oily rubbish at the bottom of our ocean, or stand up to them and make them get their mess out of here.

Everyone will have the chance to make a submission when the resource consent gets lodged, but in the meantime, I would love to hear what you think about this - so please leave a comment below.

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