New Zealanders have been watching in astonishment as a laden container ship lists and leaks oil just 20km from Mt Maunganui. They are astonished less by the fact that the vessel has hit a reef than by the time it has taken for authorities to respond. The 236m MV Rena has been wallowing in calm seas since last Wednesday. Four days passed with no sign of assistance for the ship or efforts to lighten its load or contain the oil slick forming around it.
It took until Sunday for a barge to start taking oil from the stricken vessel's tanks, and that work was suspended yesterday when a change in the weather was forecast. Meanwhile the first globs of oil were found on the Mount beach.
The lack or preparedness for a shipwreck so close to New Zealand's coast, and an apparent lack of urgency in dealing with it, is dismaying. The ship has not foundered on some wild and remote part of the coast, it is close to the port of Tauranga. Yet the port authorities do not appear to have the means or the responsibility to act.
The national sea transport authority, Maritime New Zealand, has overall responsibility but it seems the crucial decisions are being left to the owners of the ship and a Dutch salvage company. Transport Minister Steven Joyce and Prime Minister John Key sound as helpless as anyone.
Mr Joyce on Friday: "It's certainly serious what's going on there. It's been a bit frustrating for everybody in terms of getting the right equipment to achieve the removal of the oil and containers."
Mr Key at the weekend: "I think the first thing you have to say is that this is a very large ship that, in calm waters, has hit a well documented reef. So some serious questions need to be asked about why this happened and who is responsible, and there are two inquiries under way to get those answers."
Those are not the most urgent questions. How it happened and who was at fault are issues that can wait. Right now we need to know what can be done to refloat the ship or remove its oil and any other pollutants it may be carrying before it breaks and sinks.
So far effort to contain the slick by skimming it from the surface or spraying a chemical dispersant by helicopter, appear to have failed. Floating booms were used off Queensland last year when a Chinese coal carrier ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Here they have not been used yet because, it is said, the ocean is too deep and rough for them to be effective.
The pollution posed by the slick so far is minor by comparison to the threat to the Bay of Plenty's beaches and marine life from the 1700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil in the ships tanks. Only 10 tonnes had been removed before work was stopped yesterday because a turn in the weather was said to threaten the safety of a salvage team on the damaged ship.
If this is going to happen at every change in the spring weather, the Bay of Plenty environment is going to be at risk for a long time. Mr Joyce says, "I've heard weeks, even months for the salvage of the containers and the ship." We can only be thankful the vessel was not an oil tanker.
Environmentalists are fairly asking why a country that depends upon oil imports is not better equipped to deal with a maritime emergency. They also wonder how the Government can contemplate offshore oil drilling when the country is so lamentably ill-equipped to deal with a spill.
Yesterday, the Environmental Defence Society said, "New Zealand has more than 14,000km of coastline and some of the most important and biodiverse oceans in the world. We need world-class environmental standards and international best practice in oil spill management available at a moment's notice. What we are seeing is not good enough."