Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Nature will put power behind clean-up

The sea will wash the beaches clean with time. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The sea will wash the beaches clean with time. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Nature will win the Battle of the MV Rena. That is what nature does. This should be some consolation for the heartbroken people of the Bay of Plenty as they watch their landscape defiled by the foolishness of some sailors.

The people of the region have taken charge. They are handling the crisis with their spades and plastic bags. They love this coast and its wildlife, and will keep going until the job is done. They are an inspiration.

The authorities, for their part, have their work cut out convincing anyone the crisis was handled properly from the start - or even later. Following the dithering over the Christchurch earthquakes and the Pike River mine explosion, we know our emergency response systems are disastrous.

We must be thankful that in this case, unlike those catastrophes, there has been no loss of human life.

Many will also feel sympathy for the locals at having to deal not just with the oil slick, but with the wave of media and politicians who are also sullying the coast. The PM who wouldn't be photographed anywhere near the S&P downgrade appears to have rented a site at the Maketu campground. We don't know for sure what the long-term damage will be - most reports contain a higher-than-usual number of sentences using the words "could", "may" and "might".

But there have been many environmental disasters which were believed to be apocalyptic and turned out to be much less. The long-term results of those events tend to get less coverage. We have not heard much, for instance, about how quickly the area affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year recovered.

That event and the Rena have at least one thing in common - political over-reaction. Barack Obama described of the spill as "the worst environmental disaster" in US history. It was nothing like. A year later, the beaches were clean and the seafood was good to eat.

When we hear the words "oil spill" we usually think "Exxon Valdez". But that ship ran aground in a relatively enclosed location, Alaska's Prince William Sound, and in freezing temperatures. Those factors tended to keep the oil within a small area where it did maximum damage.

And its cargo was 11 million gallons (41 million litres) of crude oil. The Rena, on the other hand, is haemorrhaging its own fuel supply, which is about 450,000 gallons. The amount of oil involved in the BP Gulf of Mexico spill was 205 million gallons.

Prince William Sound has still to recover. But nature will get there in the end, just as it has much more quickly in the Gulf of Mexico.

Among the greatest risks is that of rushing to judgment, before we have the information on which to base a decision. Again, in the case of the BP spill, reaction was so unthinking some fishermen who feared their fishing grounds were permanently ruined committed suicide because they thought, wrongly it turned out, that their livelihoods were lost forever.

We are on this planet for the shortest of times. The damage done by an incident like the Rena's grounding, while its immediate consequences are harrowing and heartbreaking, is as nothing in the long term. We have our part to play in repairing it. But even without our help, given enough time, the sea will wash itself clean. The bird populations will be renewed. The marine life will recover. The natural order will be restored.


One result of the Rena disaster is likely to be a reminder of the efficiency and relative cleanliness of rail transport for passenger and freight within these narrow islands.

Every boy's alleged dream of becoming a train diver - sorry, "locomotive engineer" - has fallen out of popularity in recent years, its place taken by ambitions such as hedge fund manager and IT guru.

KiwiRail hasn't been hiring on a large scale for quite some time, but a recent increase in demand has created 100 places for would-be locomotive engineers. The company received 750 applications for these.

This enthusiastic response may reflect no more than the diminishing number of career choices, but I like to think it also shows a skerrick of sentiment for the romance of rail in young hearts not totally jaded by the shiny attractions of the digital age.


The NZRU's Steve Tew thundered New Zealand might not be able to afford to take part in another RWC under the current system. So a meeting of the top 10 unions was held to sort it out. Their decision won't surprise anyone who has observed the speed at which other concerns about the event have been dealt with.

The IRB "gave a firm commitment to complete a review of the model of the tournament". Depending on how that goes, the next step will no doubt be "a promise to definitely getting around to thinking about probably doing something about it next time or the one after, at the absolute latest".

- Herald on Sunday

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