Liability unclear as talks with insurers, charterers and owners continue
The cost of cleaning up the mess left by the Rena has exhausted an emergency oil fund and is now eating into a $25 million Government kitty - and whether taxpayers will have to pick up the tab remains uncertain.
Last night, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee said all reserves from the oil pollution fund had been used and a $25 million kitty made available by the Government was now being drawn upon by Maritime New Zealand.
Funds recovered from the Rena's insurers, charterers and owners would be used to offset the expenses, but ongoing legal negotiations had not yet ascertained whether the taxpayer would be protected.
An estimate made last month of the clean-up cost - which included scooping oil from Bay of Plenty beaches and saving oiled wildlife - was put at nearly $20 million since the container ship struck Astrolabe Reef on October 5.
The estimated legal liability to the ship's owner is $12.1 million, meaning the taxpayer may be left with a bill of at least $7.4 million.
Yesterday, Costamare Shipping Limited released a statement reassuring it was funding the salvage operation and container recovery. But it failed to clarify whether it would cover the clean-up.
Environment Minister Nick Smith also could not reveal details of the talks. "The negotiations are sensitive and I don't want to compromise them by putting them in the public arena," he told the Herald.
But he reaffirmed the Govern-ment's position that Costamare should pick up the entire bill.
He had been advised the Rena's bow section would soon break up and join the submerged stern section, sitting between 30m and 35m below the surface on the Astrolabe Reef.
3D images released yesterday showed how the Rena had broken up and slid down the reef, with one end of the stern jutting above the water.
"Our desire remains to get as many containers off once the conditions improve, although getting the 300-odd containers out of the stern section has become more difficult than getting at those above deck on the bow section."
What salvage method would be used would not be known until it was safe for divers to inspect the ship, which was last night being lashed by swells of up to 3m.
Svitzer Salvage spokesman Matt Watson said the sinking of the Rena's stern on Tuesday, which came after a storm ripped the ship in half on Sunday and sent almost 50 containers into the sea, had made the operation much more complicated.
Oil booms mean no more swims
The unwelcome return of oil booms to Maketu has locals in the Bay of Plenty seaside settlement bracing for another bout of heartache.
Twenty-metre lengths of inflatable boom that had been kept at a marae were placed 100m across the environmentally vulnerable Maketu estuary, ahead of a fresh but smaller wave of oil leaking from the Rena.
The invading oil was expected to arrive at nearby Little Waihi and Pukehina this evening, although it is hoped the area's "high-energy" shoreline will have broken down all but the dregs.
Response team member Bruce Goff said: "The impact of oil is a significant environmental issue for this area ... and the booms are all in place just for cautionary measures."
Maketu mum Raewyn Hanara had planned to take her children to the beach for a swim, but it had to be the playground instead as the bright orange booms went into the water nearby.
"We're all tired of it, it's a big nuisance for all of us."
The near-deserted beach would normally be crowded at this time of year, she said, "and there's no pipis for tea any more".
The community pulled together when the first wave of oil hit Maketu's rocky shores and left a sticky mess for locals, and Shane Unuwai was among those ready to answer the call for the second time.
"You'll find it's times like this when all the whanau gets together and there's no mucking around - you become a lot stronger, you become as one," he said.
Booms were also placed in the water between Little Waihi, just over the hill, and Pukehina, a holiday hotspot.
On Waihi Beach at the opposite reach of the Western Bay of Plenty, about 100 people had signed up to clean up container debris and small blobs of oil. Volunteers were being given protective equipment and trained, while people already registered with the volunteer programme before Christmas were being contacted.
Teams of up to 30 were cleaning oil around the base of the Mount and Matakana Island, which was left littered with wrecked containers and strewn debris, everything from timber to DVDs.
Container recovery company Braemar Howells yesterday had 12 vessels helping recover material from the water north of Astrolabe Reef and Motiti Island, as well as securing and recovering floating containers and large timber bundles around Waihi Beach.
Maritime New Zealand on-scene commander Alex van Wijngaarden said the oil spilling from the Rena was "much less" than in October.
One oiled penguin was taken to the recovery centre at Mt Maunganui.By Jamie Morton @Jamienzherald Email Jamie