New Zealand says an oil spill from a container ship stranded off the North Island coast has become the country’s worst maritime pollution disaster.
The amount of oil spewing from the stricken vessel Rena, which hit a reef last Wednesday, had increased five-fold after it sustained further damage in a storm overnight, the government said.
“I’d like to acknowledge this event has come to a stage where it is New Zealand’s most significant maritime environmental disaster,” environment minister Nick Smith told reporters at Tauranga, where once-pristine beaches have been fouled with oil.
He described as tragic the latest developments, in which up to 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil leaked into the Bay of Plenty earlier today, but said there was little authorities could do to prevent it.
“It is my view that the tragic events we are seeing unfolding were absolutely inevitable from the point that the Rena ran onto the reef in the early hours of Wednesday morning,” he said.
The latest spill dwarfed an initial leak of 20 tonnes after the Liberian-flagged vessel ploughed into the reef, 22 kilometres offshore.
The crippled ship ruptured a fuel tank after it was pounded by five-metre swells, forcing a salvage crew on the vessel to issue a mayday earlier Tuesday and evacuate as a safety precaution.
Earlier on Tuesday, Maritime New Zealand director Catherine Taylor said the vessel appears stable but added “the weather forecast is not good”.
“Things are changing all the time, the weather has not worked for us, it’s worked against us and we’re being precautionary and ensuring we keep people safe first,” she said.
The Rena had 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil aboard.
Meanwhile, clean-up efforts have begun on Bay of Plenty beaches, where blobs of tar-like oil that locals said resembled “black jellyfish” began to wash up on Monday.
The spill has already killed a number of sea birds, with seven Little Blue penguins and two shags receiving treatment at wildlife rescue centres after being found covered in oil.
Locals, who have criticised the speed of the oil spill response, said they had seen large numbers of dead birds and fish on beaches.
Mount Maunganui, a coastal resort town within the picturesque Bay of Plenty, is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations.
Its surf life saving club is facing the wash up of a tar-like toxic ooze.
“Sometimes it’s dinner-plate size clumps on the beach; other times there’s little clumps all over the beach, could be the size of a 50 cent piece,” spokesman Michael Lord said.
“It’s really disappointing and a bit disheartening, especially coming into the summer season, especially for surf life saving.
“That’s our playground out there. The public are the same. It’s definitely a beautiful area so it’s definitely going to affect what we do.”
Maritime New Zealand says it does not want untrained people helping out or even on the beach – a message echoed by the environment minister.
That’s our playground out there. The public are the same. It’s definitely a beautiful area so it’s definitely going to affect what we do.
“The worst case scenario for instance is that people go onto the beaches and actually make the problem worse by, for instance, getting the oil on their boots and spreading it more widely rather than actually doing it in a coordinated way,” Mr Smith said.
But Bay of Plenty residents began to trickle down to beaches today with spades and plastic bags.
“Just picking up [the] largest globules of oil, bagging them up and then [the] other fellow who’s turned up down here with me is doing the same thing,” resident Ray Collins said.
“We’re just going to bag them up, put them in the back of his truck, and take them down to the skip bins which are down at the main beach apparently.
“As far as I can see, I’m not a fish, I’m not a bird, I’m not going to eat the oil; I’m just going to pick it up and put it in a bag.”
Ms Taylor said more oil was expected to leak from the vessel and further shoreline pollution was inevitable.
Environmental agencies say it will be a matter of weeks rather than days for the spill to be contained.