A container ship whacks into the reef off Bastion Pt and for four days, officials stand by without a tissue between them to mop up the oil before it starts seeping into the porous volcanic shores of Rangitoto, down into the CBD and on to the eastern suburbs beaches.

Such a scenario sounds ridiculous, but it's what happened last week after the container ship Rena ploughed into a well-charted reef 20km from the port of Mt Maunganui.

It's the slowness of any first response action to the environmental consequences of this disaster that has shocked New Zealanders, even more than the fact that in this age of modern navigational aids, a ship could be so careless.

It comes as little comfort to discover that a formal Review of New Zealand's Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Capability, released in June this year, expresses concerns about the very same issue.


Conducted by leading Australian maritime consultancy Thompson Clarke Shipping on behalf of Maritime New Zealand (MNZ), it reviewed whether MNZ had "sufficient and appropriate equipment" and dispersants in store to respond effectively to oil spills.

While giving an overall pass mark, the review "identified a number of issues which, if addressed, could make New Zealand's capability to respond significantly more effective".

One issue was equipment. "In general terms a significant quantity of this equipment is that which is intended to respond to major oil spills and comprises heavy boom and larger skimmers. This equipment provides New Zealand [with] the capability to respond effectively to large oil spills up to the recommended spill size of 5500 tonnes.

"However, it takes time to prepare and deploy heavy-duty equipment. Time is the essence in spill response operations and it is essential that on-site response agencies have access to equipment that is not only effective but of a size and weight that facilitates quick deployment if the potential effects of an oil spill are to be mitigated successfully at an early stage."

New Zealand fell short in this area.

In this country there's a three-tier system in place to manage oil spills; minor spills are the responsibility of the offending party to clean up; tier two spills fall to the regional council, while the worst are left to MNZ. What surprised the review team was the "hands off" approach of port companies, including the operators of Marsden Pt, the country's only oil refinery.

Until 1988, the old harbour boards, like their counterparts in Australia and the United Kingdom, maintained a responsibility for marine oil spill response. Under the corporatised model outlined in the Port Companies Act 1988, "the principal objective of every port company is to operate as a successful business" and the act specifically excludes them from taking on the harbour board's statutory functions "relating to safety or good navigation". Port companies told the reviewers "they did not have a role or responsibility to respond to oil spills in 'their port"' though conceded they had trained labour available to help the regional council or MNZ if spills occurred.

At Marsden Pt, the New Zealand Refinery "maintains no [first-strike] equipment on site at Marsden Pt," though trained staff are available to help the regional council.


The situation at the offshore Taranaki drilling well site is similar, with "minimal" first-strike equipment provided by the oil companies, happy to leave it to the public authorities. An offshore Taranaki oil spill is "apparently amenable to dispersants, however the window of opportunity is tight, at around four hours from start of spill.

"Due to the reliance on the regional council/MNZ to mount a response", the review team "is doubtful if a reasonable first-strike dispersant attack could be mounted [in that timeframe]. This would almost certainly lead to a coastal clean-up operation".

The lack of adequate, first-response equipment has worried regional councils and port companies for years. A PricewaterhouseCoopers Audit of marine oil spill preparedness from 2001 reports council and port officials complaining of MNZ equipment being bulky and labour-intensive and not suitable for rapid deployment.

Another review in 2003 led to the purchase of three rapid-response Oil Recovery Vessels, now based at Marsden Pt, Picton and Auckland - the latter for nationwide deployment.

Aucklanders might be surprised that their vessel, Kuaka, is not based downtown at the port, but high and dry in Te Atatu at MNZ's headquarters. It could be launched into the harbour at Te Atatu, but that is tide-dependent, so chances are it would have to travel for an hour by road to the likely site of a spill at the commercial ports.

Trailer weight restrictions mean the ORV and its power pack would have to travel separately and be assembled on arrival.

The report, with remarkable restraint, suggests it would be "useful" to base the Kuaka at the port in the care of the harbourmaster.

A subsequent "Action Plan" from Maritime NZ supports this "in principle" but notes "a lack of indoor storage for the vessel in Auckland CBD".

The Pike River mine disaster highlighted the inadequacies of mining regulations and of our response capabilities to such an emergency. The Rena's grounding raises the question about New Zealand's preparedness for handling disaster in another industry. As the oil washes up on beaches near Mt Maunganui, the answer seems to be "not as well as we could".

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