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Maritime New Zealand director Catherine Taylor told a packed auditorium at Tauranga Boys' College tonight that clean-up teams will hit the beach tomorrow morning to try and deal with New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster.

A capacity crowd filled the public forum, as anxious Bay of Plenty residents came to learn the latest on the oil spill.

Taylor urged people to work with the authorities and register to volunteer, rather than clean the oil from the stranded cargo ship Rena on their own.

"It is a bucket and spades operation," she said. "It will take some time. After high-tide tomorrow you will see teams on the beaches."


Ms Taylor told residents the weather conditions have hampered efforts to remove oil from Rena, and it is a dangerous situation.

"We are at the mercy of the sea. It is not a quick fix."

Authorities will take to the air at 6.30am tomorrow to analyse the situation.

Ms Taylor said the oil which has washed up over the last two days is only from the initial spill. Much more has since spilled from the ship.

"I must prepare you for tomorrow morning it will be much worse."

A massive oil spill from the ship off the coast of Tauranga has become New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster, the Government says.

Government promises accounting
Environment Minister Nick Smith this afternoon said oil had been pouring out of the Rena at "fivefold" the rate it had in the days after the ship grounded on Astrolabe Reef.

Environmental response coordinator Nick Quinn said oil spills arriving from tomorrow would be much more significant than the clumps that washed ashore earlier this week.

He warned residents to prepare for weeks of cleanup work on beaches in the area around Tauranga.

The "tragic" spill was inevitable since the Rena grounded carrying 1700 tonnes of oil at 2:20am last Wednesday, said Mr Smith.

He promised the Government would hold those who were responsible for the grounding to account.

Transport Minister Stephen Joyce said the cost of the Rena cleanup had already risen to millions of dollars.

Much of that cost would be borne by the vessel owners under maritime law, but there would be a cost to the New Zealand Government, he said.

He added that it was a high risk situation.

"You're dealing with a game of probabilities and risk and you have to keep adapting what you're proposing to do constantly."

Oil spill increases in size

Maritime New Zealand said between 130 and 350 tonnes of oil leaked out of the Rena this morning.

It had previously estimated a spill of between 20 and 30 tonnes.

A spokesman said the massive new spill meant oil was now spewing from a main fuel tank on the vessel.

He said oil was continuing to leak from the tank and was heading south west towards Mt Maunganui.

"One of the main tanks has been breached. It is very significant in the scheme of things."

Meanwhile, the Awanui - which had been used to pump fuel off the Rena - was not on the water today because of minor damage received yesterday.

It was not known when it would return to the Rena.

Clean-up to begin at low tide

Teams of some of the 500 people on standby to help with the clean up headed out to Mt Maunganui and Papamoa beaches this morning.

They've been trained to skim the oil off the surface of the beach with the minimum impact and have been issued with protective gear.

The clean up effort on Mt Maunganui Beach begun at low tide today.

Maritime New Zealand also reissued a plea to people not to clean up.

"Although it looks bad, the oil in its clumped state is at no risk of going anywhere, and people attempting to remove it without the proper training or equipment risk making the situation worse."

Extra precautions are also being taken at a number of sensitive sites, including the Maketu Estuary where they've deployed a boom.

Rubber-neckers are being urged not to go down to the beach to take a look at the thick globs of oil washing up.

Health warning

Hundreds of people flocked to the beach yesterday and children were even playing with the thick, gooey substance.

But health officials say it can cause skin rashes or even the fumes can make you sick.

Mr Service is warning people to stay away.

"That's kilometres of beach, it's impossible for us to have a policeman on every pathway going to the beach so we again request the public, please stay off the beach and if you have to go there don't touch the oil.''

Bad weather to continue

Meanwhile officials are waiting for a weather window before recommencing the job of pumping the Rena's toxic fuel oil onto the barge Awanuia.

Strong seas have been battering the area around Astrolabe Reef.

Metservice says northeasterlies of 35 knots will ease to around 20 knots this morning, but rise again this evening to 30 knots and seas are expected to be rough with a two metre northeast swell.

Maritime New Zealand salvage manager Bruce Anderson says forecasts suggests more settled weather within the next few days.