The captain of the Rema and another officer have been charged with ‘operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk’.
It is difficult to understand how a container ship could hit a
well marked charted reef but the court case may answer some of the many questions about that.
In the mean time, a media release from National MP Dr Jackie Blue answers the critics who think the government should have done, and should still be doing more:
1. What are Government’s environmental priorities?
The main concern is the 1700 tonnes of heavy oil on the Rena, of which an estimated 350 tonnes has leaked. The second priority is
the 80 tonnes of hazardous goods, albeit these raise greater occupational safety risks for the salvage operation than environmental risks to the Bay of Plenty community. The third is the risk to shipping from the containers lost overboard.
2. Why was oil not removed from the vessel earlier?
The heavy oil tanks on the Rena are serviced by pipes in the duct keel which was extensively damaged when the ship hit the reef.
The time critical issue in getting the heavy oil off the ship was putting together the alternative pipe system to enable the tanks to be emptied. A further priority was pumping oil out of the bow tanks that were damaged to the stern tanks. An additional complication was intrusions within the tanks that made the job of getting the pumps in from the top difficult. Even if the oil transfer vessel, the Awanuia, had arrived prior to Sunday it would not have changed the time when the pumping could have started.
3. Why were booms not placed to contain the oil around the ship?
Booms are only useful in very specific circumstances and their performance varies with the type of oil and sea conditions. They don’t work in a chop of more than 0.5 metres or in any significant sea current. The fuel oil in the ship is heavy grade and can float below the surface, also making booms less effective in this spill. Absorption booms are being used in some of the estuaries, but are limited to areas where there
is low current.
4. What about the environmental safety of the dispersant being used?
Dispersants help reduce the harm of an oil spill by breaking up the oil and thus reducing the toll on birdlife. It is most effective as soon as possible after the oil enters the ocean. Five dispersants were trialled because different formulations work differently on different oil types. The dispersant being used, Corexit 9500, is approved by the Environmental Protection Authority and has a low eco-toxicity. It is similar to dishwashing liquid or washing powder. It can have ecological effects in shallow waters that exceed its benefits and, as a consequence, its use is being limited to deeper waters. The Government is taking a cautious approach to its use but decisions on this, like on other parts of the operation, are being made by technical experts.
5. What implications are there from this spill for the Government’s plans for petroleum development
in the marine environment?
The Government has taken a very environmentally responsible approach in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. There was an independent review of New Zealand’s regulations and systems for managing the risks. This review found New Zealand’s regulations and systems were in good shape, with the exception of the gap in respect of assessment of environmental effects in the EEZ. The Government has introduced legislation based on world’s best practise for the EEZ and put in place interim arrangements. This legislation was supported by the Greens but opposed by Labour. You should note that there were 14 test bores drilled in the deep sea during Labour’s last term, without any mandatory assessment of environmental effects. The connection between this shipping based spill and proposed deep sea drilling are thin. The risks are quite different and no one is suggesting that an export based country should ban shipping.
This is an environmental disaster but TV3 has a history of maritime disasters which put it into perspective:
An estimated 300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil has spilled into the sea from the Rena so far.
* Last year the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, spilling about 780,000 tonnes of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
* In 2003 the oil tanker Tasman Spirit ran aground off Karachi,Pakistan, spilling about 27,000 tonnes of crude oil.
* In 2002 the tanker Prestige wrecked on the Spanish coast leaked an estimated 76,000 tonnes of crude oil.
* In 1989 the Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling up to 119,000 tonnes of crude oil.
* In 1978 the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the French coast and broke up, spilling its cargo of 220,000 tonnes of light crude oil and 4000 tonnes of fuel oil into the sea.
And in New Zealand:
* In 2002, the Jody F Millennium broke free from her moorings in Gisborne Harbour and ran onto the beach in rough seas. An estimated 25 tonnes of fuel oil leaked out, coming ashore over about 8km of coastline.
* Also in 2002, the Hong Kong-flagged carrier Tai Ping, carrying 9500 tonnes of fertiliser, ran aground at Tiwai Point, at the entrance to Bluff Harbour. After being grounded for nine days, the vessel was refloated with not a drop of oil spilled.
* In 2000, the Seafresh 1 caught fire and sank off the Chatham Islands, spilling 60 tonnes of diesel.
* In 1999, the container ship MV Rotoma discharged around 7 tonnes of oily water off Northland’s east coast.
* In 1998, the Korean fishing vessel Don Wong 529 ran aground off Stewart Island, spilling 400 tonnes of automotive oil.
NZ History online has a list of disasters among which are the following maritime ones:
* The Maria broke up on rocks near Wellington on 23 July 1851, with the loss of 26 lives.
* The sinking of the Orpheus which hit the Manakau bar in 1863 killing 189 of the 259 people on board.
* The City of Dunedin which disappeared without trace in 1865 with 39 passengers and crew.
* After fire broke out on board the Fiery Star in 1865 the captain and 77 passengers took to the lifeboats and were never seen again.
* The steamer Taiaroa struck rocks at the mouth of the Clarence River on 11 April 1886, and 34 people drowned.
* The sinking of the General Grant in 1866 resulted in the death of all but 15 of the 83 on board.
* In 1869, 20 people died when the St Vincent was wrecked in Palliser Bay.
* In 1881, the steamer Tararua struck a reef at Waipapa Point, Southland. In all, 131 passengers and crew died, including 12 women and 14 children. Most were washed overboard and drowned while the rescuers were held back by high seas.
* The following year a sudden storm wrecked two large sailing ships, the City of Perth and Ben Venue, in Timaru’s exposed roadstead. Nine lives were lost. Among the dead were the port’s harbourmaster and five local watermen, who had tried to rescue the ships’ crews.
* In 1886 Taiaroa struck rocks near the mouth of the Clarence River, north of Kaikōura, and sank with the loss of 34 lives.
* In 1894 the steamer Wairarapa hit cliffs on Great Barrier Island, resulting in the deaths of 101 of the 186 passengers and 20 of the 65 crew.
* In 1902 the three-masted sailing ship the Loch Long was wrecked off the Chatham Islands, with the loss of 24 lives.
* The same year the steamer Elingamite was wrecked on the Three Kings Islands, north of Cape Rēinga, with the loss of 45 lives.
* In 1909 the Cook Strait ferry Penguin struck rocks off Cape Terawhiti and sank with the loss of 72 lives.
* In 1950 the passenger launch Ranui, returning from a holiday trip to Mayor Island, was wrecked on North Rock, Mt Maunganui. Of the 23 people on board, only one survived.
* In 1951 the 10 crew on board Husky and Argo, were lost during the centennial Wellington-Lyttelton yacht race. (My father was on board the Caplin, another yacht which entered the race).
* The Holmglen foundered north of Oamaru in 1959. All 15 crew were lost.
* In 1966 the collier Kaitawa was lost with all 29 hands.
* In 1968 the Lyttelton–Wellington ferry Wahine struck Barrett Reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. Of the 734 passengers and crew on board, 51 died (a 52nd victim died several weeks later, and a 53rd of related causes in 1990).
These don’t make the foundering of the Rema any better.
It is an environmental disaster which will have social and economic repercussions but no human lives have been lost, nor should any be put at risk in the recovery and clean-up.
UPDATE: Whaleoil has some graphics which also put the Rena into perspective.