One year ago today, the biggest environmental disaster that has ever faced New Zealand began to unfold.

Despite a huge volunteer effort that was carried alongside a politically-charged official response, beachgoers even this week are still coming home with spots of oil all over their jandals.

We already know it was big, it killed considerable wildlife and we are still waiting to learn of the long term effects that it will have on seafood. While the beaches may have been reopened quickly, it is what we cannot see that will haunt us for years to come.

Before the port was extended to allow big ships like the Rena to dock, the local Iwi challenged the proposal in the Environment Court, questioning what would happen if one of these ships hit the ground. Their dismay at the delayed response to the Rena grounding is understandable when their fears reigned true.


It is fine for outsiders to inspect the beach and marvel at it's cleanliness only weeks after the event. But if you are a local who relies on the ocean for survival (as the residents of Motiti Island do), then your main concern isn't aesthetic damage, it is the knowledge that your source of income and food supply is tainted for many years to come.

It is hard to argue that expansion of the Port of Tauranga has not been good economically for the region. However, perhaps preparedness and an action plan for the potential of a disaster such as the Rena should be a requirement for future growth in these areas to ensure our future responses to such disasters are not delayed.

There were rumours that there was millions of dollars of oil spill response equipment available for use during the fine weather at the beginning of the disaster, but no-one was willing to use it for fear of being held accountable. Certainly, the issue of liability needs to be explored when we are establishing a protocol for the future, however the need for a fast and coordinated approach is important. The focus needs to be on reducing long term impacts rather than pointing finger.

We can take some serious lessons from this and we are lucky to have the opportunity to refine our ability to respond and mitigate damage in any future events.

Something good from something bad

Being on the ground running the systems for thousands of volunteers with my small team, I saw this great emergency spark action from thousands of volunteers.

The Bay of Plenty community were joined by others that travelled hours to come and help, showing courage in the face of adversity and mucking in to do their bit for the coastline. It was fantastic to see those who couldn't help physically turning up with baking to fuel the effort.

Emotions - negative and positive - ran high when managing the volunteer sites and people of all colours, shapes and sizes relished the opportunity to do something good during a bad situation. And despite the terrible blow suffered by the local iwi - none worked harder on restoration than them, which deserves immense credit.

This was the first time in the world that volunteers had ever worked on an oil spill in a coordinated effort. This was extremely cost effective (which is particularly pertinent as we stare down the barrel of capped liability that will result in taxpayers forking out over $35 million dollars for the clean-up) and the volunteers delivered great results, but it was not easy.

With an election beckoning the situation unfortunately became more political than it should have, which made it much harder to get things done.

One year on, the question remains - are we ready should something like this happen again?

Perhaps we are in need of training systems for volunteers, who can respond quickly to these situations around the country as and when they happen? At least then there would be locals that would know how to use the equipment and do everything they can, safely, to minimise the impact of a spill. Unfortunately, perhaps the biggest risk lies on wells that sit in heavy seas on our west coast. No spill equipment is going to help you if a big westerly swell is hitting, which is most of the time.

But with preparation and training ("a precautionary approach") at least people would feel better about the risks we take using fossil fuels on the coast.

I have had a significant amount of time developing volunteer response systems, both here and overseas, and witnessing the Rena disaster unfold first hand, it is glaringly obvious that Kiwis love our coasts and we are not the kind of people to stand around scratching our heads but would rather roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty if and when the need arises.

Does anyone out there think that New Zealand should take a precautionary approach to such a situation happening again by training up volunteers? If you do, please leave a comment or email me with your ideas on how this could work.