The owners of the MV Rena have been given the green light to abandon its wreck off the coast of Tauranga, but with strict conditions including a multi-million dollar bond to cover ongoing costs.
An independent panel of commissioners today granted resource consent to "dump" the remaining parts of the container ship on Astrolabe Reef and to discharge any remaining pollutants into the ocean.
The 38,000-tonne Rena ran into the reef in the middle of the night on October 5, 2011, leading to New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster as 300 tonnes of oil leaked into the ocean, killing marine life and washing up along the coastline.
A salvage crew has removed parts of the vessel, but its owners were seeking permission to abandon the remaining wreck on the reef and seabed.
After a 20-day hearing last year, which considered numerous technical reports and 154 submissions, the panel said consent should be granted.
Daina Shipping Company, the Greek-based company owner of the Rena, said it was a "safe and responsible resolution".
Spokesman Konstantinos Zacharatos said his company would work with the Bay of Plenty community, iwi and local authorities on the next steps outlined in the consent decision. He said salvage work was expected to be completed in March, after which local authorities would review an exclusion zone around the wreck. Environmental groups and iwi want the shipping and fishing ban to remain for another two years to allow the biodiversity around the reef to recover.
Environment Minister Nick Smith said the hearing panel had made a "common sense" decision. More than $500 million had been spent on the clean-up so far, and further removal work at the reef could cause more environmental damage than if it were left alone. Recovering the final pieces of the ship would also be a risky exercise for a clean-up team.
"This issue has been going on for many years. It needs to be brought to closure," Dr Smith told the Herald.
Tauranga-based New Zealand First List MP Clayton Mitchell criticised the decision, saying that it left the community with a toxic shipwreck and allowed the foreign owners to walk away from the incident.
The commissioners found that remaining contaminants could threaten the reef's ecosystem. But the worst pollutants, oil and plastic beads, posed a "negligible" risk to the environment.
A monitoring regime will be put in place to measure for adverse effects, controlled by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and paid for by the consent holder.
"We have fixed, as a condition of consent, a robust and effective form of security to ensure that the cost of monitoring and, where practicable, the remediation of any unacceptable adverse effects on the environment, are met by the consent holder," the commissioners said.
A trust set up by the owners must pay a cash bond of $6.35 million as security, and its insurance company the Swedish Club also had to provide $5 million in surety to cover any potential adverse affects.
The commissioners said leaving the wreck on the reef went against the wishes of many Maori, who considered the site a taonga. At least one iwi has indicated that it will appeal the consent decision.
But the commissioners also said they did not have the statutory power to order the wreck to be removed. By granting consent, they gave some certainty to a long-running problem and created a "complex and extensive" monitoring regime.
"The certainty factor arising from the granting of the application would be a significant positive outcome," the consent decision said.
"It would guarantee council-controlled surveillance and ongoing management of the wreck and the reef. This would be at the cost of the consent holder. It would be for a period of 20 years from the granting of consent.
"This, with the time lapse since the grounding, would mean a period of approximately 25 years from the grounding. The passage of time would filter out many, if not all, of the physical adverse effects."
-- additional reporting Kiri Gillespie