Stricken New Zealand Container Ship May Break Apart or Sink

October 18, 2011

Salvage crews raced Monday to pump oil from a stricken ship teetering on a reef off the New Zealand coast, while also preparing for the worst: Authorities believe the vessel will break apart or sink soon.

The salvage work resumed late Sunday after a halt of about a week due to severe weather. Progress has been limited – just 82 tons of oil have been removed while an estimated 1,400 tons of fuel remains aboard.

The Rena grounded Oct. 5 on the Astrolabe reef 14 miles (22 kilometers) from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand’s North Island, setting off what officials have called the country’s worst maritime environmental disaster. An estimated 350 tons of oil have spilled into the sea near beaches on New Zealand’s North Island, killing more than a thousand sea birds.

And with the weather expected to worsen again late Monday, New Zealand’s transportation minister Steven Joyce said he didn’t think there was much chance of getting off all the oil before the ship fell apart or sank.

“I think it’s a case of getting everything off that you can,” Joyce said Monday.

The ship has major structural cracks and experts say it could break apart or slip from the reef at any time.

Joyce said only the bow of the ship is jammed onto the reef while the stern remains in the water, held there by its natural flotation.

“So it’s variable and very dangerous,” he said, adding that should salvage crews be evacuated from the ship, they would try to put caps on the tanks and close valves to minimize future oil spillage. Joyce said that if the vessel came apart, crews might be able to maneuver the pieces closer to shore to make subsequent oil recovery easier.

Crews first began pumping oil from the ship Oct. 9 but quickly abandoned that effort due to bad weather.

The latest attempt has proved more complicated because of the ship’s deteriorating condition – a crack now extends the width of the ship – and steeper lean – the ship now has a list of 21 degrees.

Preparations took several days, with crews needing first to construct four wooden platforms on the side of the ship to provide a level base for pumping.

“This is a hugely challenging and risky operation even in full daylight,” Bruce Anderson, who is heading the salvage operation, said in a news release. “These are incredibly brave and dedicated people.”

Maritime New Zealand, the agency heading the response, estimates about 1,290 sea birds have died in the spill. Another 207 oiled birds and three New Zealand fur seals are being treated at a wildlife center.

The Rena is owned by Greek-based Costamare Inc. Both the captain and an officer on the ship have been charged under New Zealand maritime laws with operating a ship in a dangerous or risky manner. If found guilty, the men, whose names have been suppressed under New Zealand law, face up to a year in jail or a fine of ten thousand New Zealand dollars ($8,000).

The New Zealand weather agency MetService is forecasting strengthening Northerly winds for the Tauranga area late Monday.

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