Ripples from the Rena keep rolling on to shore

A week from today, the Bay of Plenty will mark the first anniversary of the MV Rena's grounding. We look back at the environmental disaster it caused - and the scars still to heal

Graeme Butler's dolphin safari business was decimated. Photo / Alan Gibson
Graeme Butler's dolphin safari business was decimated. Photo / Alan Gibson

Above the surface of the sea, just a few scraps remain of the cargo ship that put the Bay of Plenty through hell.

Underneath, the bulk of the MV Rena is cracked in two on the Astrolabe Reef.

Salvors are eating away at the bow piece by piece but the stern, 65m below, is tightly wedged in the rock bed.

The sea floor is a mess of mangled container wreckage, scrap steel, wire and aluminium ingots.

Millions of dollars are still owed and millions more have yet to be spent.

There are court cases - one finished, two under way and two more waiting to be launched.

Opposition parties still accuse the Government of failing to learn the Rena's biggest lessons.

A new large-scale inquiry is tipped to go ahead, with a decision being made next month.

Views are divided among Tauranga's community - itself forever changed, but united, by the year just gone. Some, fearing the Rena will be left to waste away in their waters, think that's the way the ship's insurers want it.

And from time to time, after heavy weather, tiny spots of oil resurface on beaches, while the mess is still being cleaned up on others.

Scientists have yet to put their finger on the wider ecological toll.

For the pristine Bay of Plenty, all of this was alien on the morning of Tuesday, October 4, when the 21-year-old, Liberian-flagged Rena lumbered from the Port of Napier at 10.18am, 1368 containers on board.

Its Filipino captain, Mauro Balomaga, wanted the ship in Tauranga port by 3am the next day - and ordered his navigational officers to cut corners from the passage plan.

The Rena lurched within a worrying distance of several landmarks before luck ran out at Astrolabe at 2.14am.

"S***, s***, chief, chief, what happened?" a crewman sounded, as the 17-knot collision with the reef tore away 60m of the Rena's keel.

Balomaga, stunned by the botch, ordered a cover-up - and the GPS logbook's 2am position was changed.

A few hours later, at 6am, Maritime New Zealand's then acting director Catherine Taylor got the call.

The picture was hazy but serious enough to activate the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan and pull together a national response team in Tauranga.

Ms Taylor recalled reaching the Rena's owners in Greece, separated by a time difference, as "frustratingly slow".

"The number one responsibility was getting the heavy fuel oil off the vessel ... we knew bad weather was coming."

As helicopters circled the ship that morning, crewmen could be seen leaning over the Rena's rails, some waving to the Herald photographer.

Seeing it for herself a few days later, Ms Taylor wasn't feeling so relaxed.

"It was a sorry sight to see, this stricken vessel on a list, with oil leaking out of it, and to know for Maritime New Zealand that this wasn't something that was going to be fixed overnight - this was going to carry on for years."

There was a menacing snake of oil on the sea, wriggling for kilometres across the sea surface.

On the beaches, jelly-like balls of oil began to appear. Children could be seen handling them as locals flocked to the coastline.

Officials soon came under fire.

"This needs to be addressed," the Transport Minister's private secretary sternly wrote to Maritime New Zealand's national on-scene commander.

Time ran out on October 11 - the same day Balomaga failed to mention his cover-up during questioning by investigators.

More than 350 tonnes spewed into the ocean amid fierce weather, as Navy helicopters were dispatched to evacuate the rocking Rena. It didn't take long for it to hit the beaches.

Some broke down at the sight, covering their faces from over-powering fumes that swept over Papamoa.

The disaster gave way to anger over what was seen as a lack of action - officials were repeatedly attacked when they fronted packed public meetings.

It also united a city to take back their beaches.

"That sense of outrage people had, because they felt such an affinity with the beach, that took authorities by surprise," said Bruce Fraser, who was tasked with co-ordinating a volunteer force.

"I don't think they expected people to react quite so strongly as they did."

More than 8000 people offered to join Defence Force personnel for Operation Beach Clean-Up.

The response has re-written the official manual when it comes to large-scale pollution events, and a report to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council recommended it be adopted as a national template.

That groundswell, the success of salvors in eliminating the threat of more oil, meant much of the coastline could be re-opened within a month.

But by then the damage had been done. Thousands of birds perished, among them little blue penguins and six endangered dotterels unable to be saved by wildlife specialists.

Over what was supposed to be a busy summer holiday period, businesses put their losses at $1.2 million a day.

The Rena made another mess when she cracked apart in a January storm.

A schoolbag washed up among shredded container debris on Matakana Island gave one Tauranga family grim confirmation that their entire household belongings, onboard on October 5, would never be seen again.

Balomaga and his navigational officer Leonil Relon had been before the courts for months when the Government chose the grounding's six-month anniversary to announce its prosecution of the Rena's registered owners.

Co-incidentally, the case is to be heard again on the first anniversary.

Balomaga and Relon were jailed, then ejected from New Zealand this month.

Ms Taylor has stayed on in Tauranga, heading a $3 million recovery programme seeking to gauge the ecological effect on the Bay of Plenty.

It's personal for her - she holds hopes that the decisions she made while in the hot seat were the right ones.

Testing has yet to confirm whether oil cleaning agents, and the controversial dispersant Corexit 9500, left any trace. And the first batch of results, analysing key kaimoana species, is due.

"People are telling us the environment is better - now we need to follow up with science to make sure," she said.

For some businesses left out of pocket, the prognosis doesn't seem as promising.

Insurers The Swedish Club this month confirmed a $27 million fund for claimants who lost goods on the ship, along with an additional $11.5 million fund for hurt businesses.

Environmental lawyer Robert Makgill, preparing a growing class action so far involving more than 100 businesses, said that figure fell far short of what was owed. He saw the $11.5 million as a merely a cap.

"They can't be confident that losses are under that figure, otherwise they would not be seeking limitation in New Zealand," he said.

"The central issue is that this is not good news, it's not compensation, this is them limiting their liability."

Mr Makgill, also representing Ngati Awa in a separate claim, suspected iwi would lose out from whatever agreement the Government reached with the Rena's owners toward recouping its own costs.

"I think that iwi authorities need to [look] at pursuing their own redress."

The Government has revealed little of its own prosecution.

And others in the Bay of Plenty who spoke to the Herald were wary of closed-door talks between the insurers and stakeholders.

They feared a cost-saving agenda to leave much of the wreck on the reef was being pushed by The Swedish Club, which has already spent $235 million.

This is one option being investigated - the alternative could take up to a decade and cause further damage to the environment, but is still ordered by Maritime New Zealand.

Dive groups say the wreck has tourist-pulling potential, but for Graeme Butler, there's no compromise.

He claims his dolphin safari venture was the hardest hit of any Tauranga business, with profits 70 per cent down over the period.

"There's no place in my world for that heap of s*** to stay on the reef - it's not a romantic old vessel, it's a floating toxic warehouse."

Motiti Island kaumatua Graeme Hoete said many on the island wanted the ship gone. "It's just taking so long now and people are getting a bit hoha [annoyed] over it."

Leaving any part of the wreck would be subject to a resource consent process under the Resource Management Act, Swedish Club spokesperson Captain John Owen said.

"But as we cut the bow section down ... we are fast realising the true extent of risk and complication involved with this salvage operation."

In his experience, there had been few, if any, like it in the world.

"Recognising the range of challenges for the project and that Maritime New Zealand requires the wreck to be removed, we will continue to comply with New Zealand law and remain committed to putting things right, but also in the most responsible way."

The Green Party is waiting for a scientific analysis of both options before they take a position.

Labour has meanwhile welcomed news that the Government may soon launch a new inquiry into its response to the disaster.

A Ministry of Transport spokesman said a decision would be made next month. But one source said an independent reviewer was in the process of being appointed, with the inquiry likely to take six months to complete.

Greens MP Gareth Hughes wants that inquiry to look at how taxpayers - facing a bill of up to $50 million over the Government's own Rena-related costs - could be better safeguarded.

He has already suggested lifting minimum levels of compulsory insurance for existing oil rigs from $30 million to $200 million, and toughening penalties under the Resource Management Act.

The Government could also sign up to an international US$1.18 billion ($1.43 billion) fund for tanker spill clean-up and compensation, supplementary to the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund.

In an embarrassing blunder, failing to sign up to an earlier convention only allowed the Government to levy $12 million at the time of the Rena disaster.

It has now moved to ratify the first two parts of the IOPC, providing around $170 million for compensation, but hasn't decided whether to join the supplementary fund.

The Marine Legislation Bill, which passed its first reading this month, also seeks to clarify the relationship between national navigation safety standards and local navigation controls, along with the associated responsibilities of regional councils.

A report on whether the minimum insurance requirement for rigs was appropriate is due by the end of the year.

Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby wants an end to the compensation headache.

He doesn't deny the disaster has transformed his city. "It's actually brought the community together in many respects - they saw the incident as a violation in their patch and certainly, when the oil started coming on to the shore, they definitely rallied."

He felt history would record the Rena's grounding as a major maritime event by world standards - but little compared to how bad it could have been.

"If a thousand tonnes of oil washed up on our coastline, we would have been in serious trouble for many, many years."

Cleaning up mess will be a marathon

"A marathon, not a sprint" was the cliche officials used to describe the response to the Rena disaster in its opening weeks.

A year on, the US salvage firm and the UK environmental recovery company still dealing with the mess would agree.

Resolve Salvage and Fire have the task of carving away the Rena's bow, fast disappearing as chunks of steel are whisked away by a McDermott Aviation Bell 214 heavy lift helicopter.

More than 650 tonnes have been removed to date.

Next comes the more dangerous part - ripping apart the Rena underwater.

The dive support barge RMG280 is being busily prepared in the Port of Tauranga and the first team of divers are in place.

Divers are also playing a big part on the other side of the effort - cleaning up the Rena's debris.

Over seven days, a team of Kiwi divers attached to Braemar Howells managed to load 81 tonnes of debris from around the Rena wreck into cages hoisted on to the vessel Tasman Challenger.

Braemar Howells operations manager Mike Richards said the men were working in difficult conditions on the seabed, at depths of about 30 metres and in often strong currents.

"The conditions on the reef - in terms of the swell and currents they are working amongst - don't always reflect what the more favourable weather forecast is telling us."

Away from the wreck site, flotsam from the Rena is still being found. A survey of the East Cape area last week spotted the occasional noodle packet.

Altogether, Braemar Howells has recovered hundreds of tonnes of waste and helped retrieve more than 1000 containers from the Rena - leaving about 360 to go at the wreck site.

- NZ Herald

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