Mai Chen: Be prepared for risk of more spills

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In light of this oil spill, the government will be listening acutely to voters in the run-up to the election to determine hoe to shape policy and law in this area. Photo / Alan Gibson
In light of this oil spill, the government will be listening acutely to voters in the run-up to the election to determine hoe to shape policy and law in this area. Photo / Alan Gibson

The question the Rena incident ultimately poses for all New Zealanders is whether we are prepared to pay the price when commerce goes wrong. Accidents will inevitably happen when you have 3300 ships a year travelling up and down our coasts doing business. Similarly, the Government's intention to boost offshore oil and gas exploration over the next three years will increase this country's economic opportunities. But New Zealanders have to accept there will be more spills.

The trade-offs between environmental risk and economic reward are not easy. With the economic benefits, we have to accept the risk of environmental pain and the costs to those adversely affected by the accident. The environment and the economy are inextricably tied, especially in New Zealand where our clean green image is important not just for tourism, but also for food security and the quality of our agricultural exports.

If New Zealanders accept that trade-off, then there is no point in being surprised when spills happen and containers fall overboard. Rather, we need to be better prepared with tougher regulation on operators, increased liability caps on offenders and [ensure] Government agencies are able to deal quickly and effectively with large spills.

As Transport Minister Steven Joyce accepts, New Zealand should ratify the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage to change the way liability limits are calculated under the Maritime Transport Act. If this had been in place, the Rena's liability would have risen from $12 million to $29 million. But successive Governments have not adopted and implemented this convention into domestic legislation despite a select committee recommendation. This meant that when the Rena began spilling oil into the Bay of Plenty, our domestic law was not aligned with international best practice.

Furthermore, huge amounts of Government intervention after the event only mitigate the damage already done, as is happening with Rena. The oil spill response team includes experts from Maritime NZ, the Department of Conservation and the National Oiled Wildlife Response Team. Bay of Plenty regional council staff and the Tauranga Harbour Master are also working alongside Maritime NZ and the Maritime Pollution Response Service to respond to the situation as it develops.

More than 370 representatives from the New Zealand Defence Force are working in the incident command centre to help co-ordinate supply of equipment and personnel to the response. Four naval vessels are patrolling the maritime exclusion zone around the Rena, and are holding waste oil. Around 140 army personnel and hundreds of volunteers are being co-ordinated to clean up the black beaches.

The Government is considering compensation packages for Tauranga businesses hurt by the oil spill, some of which have had to close. The Transport Accident Investigation Commission is conducting a separate investigation into who is responsible for the Rena ending up on the Astrolabe reef.

We can arrest and charge the Rena's officers under the Marine Transport Act, and go to Costamere, which owns the ship, for damage and clean-up costs under that act and the Resource Management Act. The Transport Minister can summon the Mediterranean Shipping Co, which leases the boat, and get them to dig into their pockets and "donate" $1 million in clean-up costs.

The environment may recover over time, but the upcoming election gives ordinary people the ability to let the Government know about their appetite to run these environmental risks. Ultimately, it is voters' views which shape government policy and legislation, including how much we regulate shipping and which economic opportunities are pursued.

The public outcry in 2010 at the Government's proposal to extend mining of the conservation estate is a prime example of the power voters have to change Government policy when environmental risks are considered too great. At the time, Minister of Energy and Resources Gerry Brownlee stated that the public consultation process had determined "where the minerals industry can and can't go".

The Rena incident hits a raw nerve with New Zealanders because our ability to enjoy the great outdoors is so much a part of what we love about living here.

This time last year I was at the World Expo in Shanghai and every day at about 2pm I would get a headache from the pollution every day. It stopped as soon as I landed back in Auckland. We take our environment for granted, so it is a shock when it is damaged. After the Rena incident, the Government will be listening acutely to voters in the run-up to the election to determine how to shape policy and law in this area.

- NZ Herald

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