Sandra is a senior crimes and justice reporter for the Bay of Plenty Times.

Mobil slated for 'recklessness' over Tauranga oil spill

A district court judge who yesterday fined Mobil Oil New Zealand $288,000 for a major oil spill said the case reflected "a high level of recklessness bordering on deliberateness".

The company was sentenced in Tauranga District Court yesterday after it earlier pleaded guilty to a charge of discharging a contaminant into water - the charge attracts a maximum fine of $600,000.

The spill of between 3000 and 4000 litres of heavy fuel oil into Tauranga Harbour on April 27 last year was caused by oil escaping from two holes in a rusted pipe that was part of the Mobil's bunkering (ship refuelling) pipeline system.

Yesterday, the court heard that Mobil failed to make crucial repairs to the pipe after it was twice flagged as needing urgent attention several years earlier.

The spill initially affected Tauranga Bridge Marina but later reached Maungatapu Bay, Pilot Bay, Mount Maunganui and Matakana Island.

The spill affected birdlife and shellfish beds. Two oiled birds died.

Mobil's lawyer Malcolm Crotty accepted there needed to be a sentence with a "sting" but urged Judge Jeff Smith to take into account that the company had co-operated with the regional council from the outset and during the investigation.

Mobil had already made changes to improve its operations at the port, he said.

Mobil paid $1.8 million in reimbursements and other costs, including reimbursing the regional council almost $1.2 million for costs incurred in the clean up.

Mr Crotty said Mobil had met affected iwi and hapu members several times and was committed to continuing to work with them to try to address the cultural impacts.

The council's prosecutor Adam Hopkinson described the oil spill as "an accident waiting to happen" in an already sensitive environment, and that elevated the seriousness of the spill. Mr Hopkinson said the investigation had cost the regional council more than $300,000.

Judge Smith described the spill as being the consequences of a "systemic failure".

Of its type, this incident may not be on the same scale as Rena but nevertheless the effects were similar and also showed a high level of recklessness bordering on deliberateness ... significantly higher than that of Rena.
Judge Jeff Smith

The judge hit back at Mr Crotty's "full co-operation" submission after noting it took a search warrant to seize the section of pipe concerned, and in the first instance the company failed to provide critical documents to the regional council central to its investigation.

Judge Smith said he was "astounded" that Mobil had continued to operate this pressured pipe with no isolation valves for several years after the pipe earlier was identified as a priority for repairs.

"It is clear the impacts of the spill were serious, and the damage widespread."

Bay of Plenty Regional Council pollution prevention manager Nick Zaman. Photo/John Borren
Bay of Plenty Regional Council pollution prevention manager Nick Zaman. Photo/John Borren

To have the spill happen less than four years after Rena was like "rubbing salt into sore wounds" for hapu and iwi, and no doubt for all Tauranga Moana residents, the judge said.

"Of its type, this incident may not be on the same scale as Rena but nevertheless the effects were similar and also showed a high level of recklessness bordering on deliberateness ... significantly higher than that of Rena."

Judge Smith ordered 90 per cent of the $288,000 fine to be paid to the regional council, and Mobil was also ordered to pay $113 solicitors' fees.

The judge said there needed to be a law change in respect of the awarding of costs in these matters so ratepayers were not left out of pocket.

Outside the courthouse Andrew McNaught, Mobil's country manager, reiterated his apology given to the court.

"Mobil apologises for the incident and for the impact it had on the community and the local environment.

"Our priority has always been to minimise the impacts to the local environment and to ensure a thorough clean up and restoration of affected areas in Tauranga Harbour," he said.

Mr McNaught said Mobil had learnt lessons from this oil spill.

"Mobil learns from all incidents and uses this information to reinforce our commitment to continued improvement. We have already made changes to further improve our operations at Mount Maunganui," he said.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council pollution prevention manager Nick Zaman said the prosecution sent a message to all companies to treat risk-management obligations seriously.

Outside court, Ngati Ranginui deputy chairman Carlton Bidois said he was disappointed by the sentencing outcome as it failed to address some type of environmental recovery mitigation plan.

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