(Updates with Prime Minister’s comment in third paragraph.)
Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Rain and strong winds are slowing attempts to pump fuel from a container ship stranded on a reef off the northeastern coast of New Zealand as the first stream of oil washes up on local beaches.
The stricken vessel, carrying 1,700 metric tons of fuel oil as well as potentially dangerous chemicals on board, ran aground Oct. 5 in the Bay of Plenty near Tauranga, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Auckland. There are reports of oil on beaches and shoreline-response teams are taking action, Prime Minister John Key told a news conference in Wellington
“Public Health has been issuing messages in response to the reports, including not eating shellfish or touching anything with oil on it,” Key told reporters. “These sorts of accidents are extremely rare.”
Deteriorating weather is disrupting plans to remove fuel oil from the ship and limit the quantity that escapes into the surrounding ocean. Salvage experts are grappling with how to remove containers from the vessel and refloat it, while gauging the risk of the ship breaking up.
Recovering oil from the ship “is everyone’s first focus,” Transport Minister Steven Joyce told reporters. “That’s very challenging. The conditions make it quite difficult.”
Recovery teams were last night able to pump about 10 tons of oil from the ship to a bunker barge alongside the ship before efforts were delayed by the changing weather, Joyce said. They are working on providing a stable platform for the transfer to resume, he said.
New Zealand’s MetService is forecasting winds of 40 miles an hour, with rain and two-meter waves for areas including the Bay of Plenty later this evening and the likelihood of sea conditions becoming very rough. Key, who yesterday flew over the ship in a helicopter, says reviews are under way to identify how the incident began.
“I want answers and I think we are entitled to those answers,” Key told Television New Zealand’s Breakfast. “Every year around the world there are ships that get into grief but not ones that plough into an extremely well documented reef in very calm waters at high speed as this one did.”
Two investigations are under way into the incident, while costs are likely to be met by the ship’s insurers, Key said. “Other actions” could follow as a result of the inquiries, he said.
About 100 tons of oil is unaccounted for, and is either in the ship’s keel or has escaped into the sea, Joyce told reporters. A thin film of oil, known as sheen, has spread from the ship since it ran aground.
“The reality is there will be oil on the beaches and the first oil has come ashore at Mount Maunganui,” he said. “We are expecting more oil to come onto the beach. There’s no such thing as preventing it coming ashore.”
New Zealand has deployed 500 defense personnel and four naval vessels, as well as underwater and aerial assessment teams to prepare for the cleanup, which could take weeks, Joyce said.
There are 25 uninjured crew members on the 32-year-old, Liberian-flagged Rena and 2,171 containers, according to Maritime New Zealand. The cargo includes four containers of ferrosilicon, a solid substance that can be hazardous when in contact with water and can emit hydrogen, the agency said.
The recovery team includes Australians who worked on the Montara oil spill in 2009 when an estimated 400 barrels of oil a day leaked into the Timor Sea off Australia’s northwestern coast between Aug. 21 and Nov. 3, making it the third-biggest spill in that nation’s history.
“In terms of the oil recovery side of this response, there are similarities between the two operations,” said Maritime New Zealand National On-Scene Commander Rob Service, who also worked on the Montara oil spill.
Two of the ship’s holds have flooded and the ship is listing although it is stable, according to the Maritime New Zealand website. Fuel escaped from damaged pipes, while tanks containing more oil are undamaged, according to the website.
The stresses on the hull are within permissible limits and the vessel’s condition isn’t deteriorating, Costamare Inc., parent of the Rena’s registered owner Daina Shipping Co., said in a statement Oct. 7. Costamare said it’s cooperating fully with local authorities.
Salvage and environmental experts have arrived in Tauranga and nearby islands and reefs to consider ways to protect the shoreline. About 14 teams are checking beaches for affected wildlife. Seven blue penguins and two shags covered in oil have been taken to a wildlife response center for treatment, Maritime New Zealand said.
--Editors: Indranil Ghosh, Andrew Hobbs
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