Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Rena's owners cite science in fight

Reports point to negligible effects if wreck allowed to stay on reef but mayor and Maori remain unconvinced.

The Rena wreck visible from underwater at Astrolabe Reef. Photo / Christine Cornege
The Rena wreck visible from underwater at Astrolabe Reef. Photo / Christine Cornege

The owners of the MV Rena have unloaded a stack of scientific reports supporting their bid to leave much of the wrecked container ship on the Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga.

The evidence supporting the ship owners' freshly lodged resource consent application paints a picture of negligible effects on the environment, but Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby has serious reservations.

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Last night, Tauranga Moana Iwi Leaders Forum chairman Carlton Bidois also said the "overwhelming majority" of iwi and hapu in the region still wanted the Rena gone.

The Herald analysed the evidence supporting the application to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council. It is likely to head straight to the Environment Court.

The regional council expects papers to be filed with the court in October, when it would be three years since the 236m vessel slammed into the reef and spilled 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the ocean.

Today, the wreck site is a mess - a large chunk of the hull sits against the reef, remnants of the bow remain in shallow water, and the ship's engine room and what is left of the accommodation block rests on its side in deep water, alongside hatch covers and other debris.

Reports pointed to four main contaminants that would have to be considered - copper, zinc, Tributyltin (TBT) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - but suggested that traces of these were minor.

An assessment by the Cawthron Institute said sediments with high levels of copper and zinc could have ecotoxicology effects, and some samples had shown some elevated levels of zinc. The report said TBT, a chemical used in anti-fouling paints, "may" have an effect over time, although results did not show high levels, while effects from PAHs were unlikely to be a concern.

Visual analyses of the reef sediments showed the main area of contamination was debris from the ship, including anti-fouling paint flakes, metal fragments, copper and bolts. Another report found only low concentrations of most contaminants at distances of 500m and over from the wreck site, although TBT was detected above threshold levels at up to a kilometre from the wreck.

However, it stated, contaminants more than 500m away from the wreck were unlikely to have "significant adverse effects" on the marine ecology.

Consultants Safinah, who specialise in marine coatings, said the potential for release of paint biocides from the ship's hull during corrosion did exist, although this would be slow and take place over decades.

Research by consultants Environmental Medicine found while there was not enough data to fully appraise food safety risks from future exposure to contaminants, an initial assessment had failed to find any problems.

It was "highly unlikely" for any contaminant to be present in such a concentration where there would be acute ingestion toxicity from eating seafood, the firm said.

Other evidence flagged "minor or less than minor" effects on birdlife, a "very slight effect" on local wave patterns, "negligible" noise effects and a "minor positive effect" on fishlife around the reef, given the new habitat created by the wreck.

A report on the proposal's cultural impact said if the wreck stayed on the reef, mitigation, in consultation with tangata whenua, would be needed to offset it.

"On the basis that these strategies are implemented the potential adverse effects on cultural values of the proposal are considered to be no more than minor," the report added.

But Buddy Mikaere, spokesman for a hapu group on Motiti Island, near the wreck site, disagreed.

"As long as that wreck is physically on the reef, it impacts the mauri [life force] of the reef - you can't even approach restoration to its former pristine self if it's got a big hunk of steel lying on it."

Mayor Crosby was also worried over the impact of the wreck on the surrounding environment and Tauranga's international reputation.

He wanted to see the owners' evidence scrutinised by independent experts, and for the public to be well briefed on the application.

The public will have 40 days to make submissions on the application, which can be done through the new website www.renaresourceconsent.org.nz.

The application at a glance

The owners of the MV Rena have applied for resource consents to leave what remains of the ship and its debris on Astrolabe Reef, with:

• A 10-year consent period
• Monitoring of the natural environment, with contingency measures proposed in the event of unexpected results
• Monitoring of the cultural effects and the establishment of a Kaitiakitanga
• Reference Group made up of iwi representatives
• Surveys of the wreck over time and after major storms
• A shoreline debris management plan
• A wreck access plan to provide information for visitors to the site
• Funding of restoration and mitigation projects.

History of a shipwreck

October 5, 2011: The MV Rena runs aground on the Astrolabe Reef at full speed. A salvage effort scrambles to action, but less than a week later, Bay of Plenty beaches are fouled when 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil spills from the ship.

January 2, 2012: A crack in the Rena splits to 1.5m wide during a weather "bomb". Days later, the stricken ship breaks in two, and then sinks, sending debris and hundreds of containers into the ocean.

March 25, 2012: Captain Mauro Balomaga and navigational officer Leonil Relon are sentenced to seven months in prison. They serve half the term.

October 2, 2012: Owner Daina Shipping Company announces it will pay $27.6 million to settle claims of the Crown and several public bodies and offers $10.4 million to leave the Rena on the reef.

July 2, 2013: An $11 million fund is set up to compensate Bay of Plenty businesses.

December 3, 2013: Maritime New Zealand releases the findings of an internal review, with a $2 million boost to help it better respond to spills.

May 30, 2014: The ship's owners lodge a resource consent application with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council to leave part of the wreck on the reef.

Three years later, battle for compensation drags on

Nearly three years after the grounding of the MV Rena, a group of Tauranga business owners are still fighting for compensation.

The 53 owners who comprise the Tauranga Business Action Group are locked in a legal wrangle with the Rena insurer, the Swedish Club, over claims lodged with the High Court, which is holding an $11 million fund to compensate local businesses.

The owners claim they collectively lost more than $5 million in the summer of 2011, and hope to get a resolution during mediation with the insurer this month.

"Not only are we out of pocket for lost business during the weeks of closure but we are still waiting for resolution," said the group's spokesman, Nevan Lancaster.

Some money had been granted by the Mediterranean Shipping Company, which chartered the Rena, to organisations such as Tourism Bay of Plenty and others. However, none had come to those small businesses that lost income as people stayed away.

Claims totalling $11.5 million to $12 million are before the High Court, with just over half lodged by 15 additional claimants.

A spokesman for the owners said mediation with the group had been proposed to resolve claims, but could not comment further as a limitation process remained before the courts.

- NZ Herald

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