MV Rena listing on the Astrolabe reef by Katie Cox


On the 5th October 2011 at 02:20am, the 775 foot, (236 metres), MV Rena ran aground onto the Astrolabe Reef, 12 nautical miles off the coast of Tauranga. The vessel was travelling at 17 knots and the weather conditions were fine, prompting speculation as to the specific cause of the grounding. Two investigations are currently being carried out to determine the events surrounding the grounding. The Rena grounding has been classed as New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster ever.

On the 11th October, salvage experts Svitzer, who were attempting to remove the oil from the Rena, had to turn back due to heavy seas and bad conditions. Another attempt to remove the remaining oil was hampered at a critical stage on the 16th October by 4 media vessels breaching the exclusion zone surrounding the Rena.  The media vessels were asked to leave the area immediately. Analysts have said that even if conditions are perfect it could take days to remove the remaining 1000 tonnes of oil from the Rena, at an operating speed of 20 tonnes removal per hour.

Transport Minister, Steven Joyce, has told media that there are 11 containers on board the Rena that contain dangerous goods, with two of the 11 containing ferro-silicon. This substance can give off highly flammable gasses if it comes into contact with water, prompting additional concern regarding environmental safety. So far 88 containers have been lost overboard.

It is believed that out of the 1700 tonnes of oil on board, as much as 350 tonnes has escaped into the surrounding sea and a further 350 tonnes are either still on-board or have also escaped into the sea. The heaviest concentration of oil is coming in onto Papamoa beach in the Bay of Plenty area. But public access to beaches is restricted from Mount Maunganui, (pronounced Mon-ga-noo-ee), to Maketu Point and includes the Maketu Estuary.

The master and 2nd officer of the Rena have been charged by Maritime New Zealand, (MTZ), under section 65 of the Maritime Transport Act for “operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk”. They were remanded on the Wednesday the 12th October until the 19th upon the condition that their passports be surrendered. The master and 2nd officer could be fined a maximum penalty of $10,000 or given a maximum of 12 months imprisonment if found guilty. The following day, 11 of the remaining crew members were put onto flights out of New Zealand to the Philippines, after being questioned, for their own safety following public anger and abuse towards the Filipino community regarding the disaster.

The Rena, owned by Greek company Costamore was registered in Liberia. Binoy Kampmark explains the ‘Flag of Convenience’ system. “In a FoC situation, owners register vessels in countries where regulation of the shipping industry is less. Host responsibilities can thereby be evaded. Chances for abuse are frequent, and have involved the use of cheaper labour, instances of crews not being paid, stranding of crew members, and even fatalities.” It is believed that there were inconsistencies with the ship’s charts and also problems with the radio and engines propulsion. There are suspicions that the deficiencies were discovered on September 28th 2011 by maintenance crews and Kampmark states that “The key now is to link the behaviour of the captain, the state of the ship and the pitfalls of the flag of convenience to the disaster.”

The managing director of Costamore, Mr Diamantis Manos, issued an official apology via video link and explained that experts from around the world have been sent to help on Costamore’s behalf. The mayor of Tauranga, Mr Stuart Crosby stated that the video apology from Manos was not good enough and that “I [Crosby] think the chief executive should come here to our city”. A spokesman for Costamore has since replied saying that there were no plans for anyone from the company, [Costamore], to go to New Zealand.

There have been six vessels patrolling the region and picking up debris and two more offshore, prepared to deploy booms if necessary. New Zealand Police and Fire Services have been aiding in recovering containers that have reached the shoreline. The dispersant Corexit 9500 was applied on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th but a spokesman for MTZ said that the effectiveness was inconclusive and therefore the results were not effective enough to justify an aerial application. Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant, involved in last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, advised caution in using Corexit 9500, stating that it is not suited to near-shore waters. The dispersants break down the oil and take it down into the water column therefore plankton, fish and shellfish larva that live between 10 – 60 m down in the water column are also exposed to the toxic combination.

The Wildlife Response Centre has been responsible for initiating the clean-up of affected marine life. So far in excess of 1000 dead sea birds have been found, but New Zealand’s Forest and Bird Protection Society have advised that this may represent only a fraction of incidents and affected individuals. Out of the sea birds affected, there are two species that are causing additional concern, the Buller’s shearwater and the New Zealand Dotterel. There are 68 Buller’s shearwaters affected at present which presents further concern as they only breed on the Poor Knights Islands, North of Auckland. It is thought that there are only ~1500 individual Dotterels left in the wild and at present, there are 36 being cared for in purpose built aviaries. Seven seals have also been affected and are being cared for professionals. There is extended concern for whales, dolphins and coastal fish species.

Just fewer than 5000 people have registered to volunteer for beach clean-up operations. Local businesses and residents have also assisted by delivering food and drink to the volunteers as well as running BBQ’s and refreshment stations. After carrying out water quality tests and digging trenches into the sand to establish that it was clear of oil, Maritime New Zealand on-scene commander Nick Quinn said that Mount Maunganui’s main beach had been given the all clear. The beach was reopened on Monday 17th, hinting that clean-up operations are going well.

Despite the apology issued by Costamore’s managing director, no direct of payment was proffered. Under the Maritime Transport Act the civil liability to the ship’s insurers is capped and in this case the maximum sum is NZ$14 million, but Prime Minister John Key has estimated the clean-up costs so far at NZ$12.1 million. The ship is insured for a limit of US$4.2 billion for a single event, with a sub-limit of about US$1 billion for a pollution event. Ships carrying less than 2000 tonnes of oil as cargo can make claims directly to the Civil Liability Convention, (CLC), 1992. Any persons who suffer oil pollution damage may claim compensation from CLC and for a ship not exceeding 5,000 gross tonnages the liability is limited to 4.51 million special drawing rights, equal to ~US$5.78 million.  New Zealand is a member of the IOPC meaning they can claim from the fund which offers further compensation if the ship’s insurance does not cover the entirety of the compensation.

Update as of 19:03 Monday 17th October 2011:

As of 17:30pm 17th Ocotber, (New Zealand Standard Time), ~70 tonnes of oil had been pumped off the Rena. Three salvage team members are to stay on the Rena overnight to continue to extract the oil overnight as weather permits.

The Rena is now listing at a 21 degree angle and all involved are preparing for it to break apart soon, following an increase in creaking and groaning from the vessel amid 2.5 foot swells. This is bringing fresh fears of further oil leaks, especially if the Rena falls off it’s perch on the reef as this may lead to a puncture in one of the two tanks containing the oil.

Under the Maritime Transport Act,the owners of the ship are liable for up to $12.1 million,but this figure would be double if the government had signed to the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage. The Convention was adopted in 2001 and came into force in November 2008. Labour leader Phil Goff spoke about the convention saying that he had advised ministers of it in 2008 leading to speculation that following governments had blundered by not following upon the recommendation.

Transport Minister, Steven Joyce has advised that so far the clean-up has cost approximately $4 million, a large difference from the figure Prime Minister John Key has detailed of $12.1 million so far. It is unclear though what exact costs are being counted in those figures and so therefore the difference may not be significant. Mr Joyce has also advised that if there are further oil leaks then the clean-up costs may well exceed the $12.1 million liability. Mr Joyce has also met with the managers of the company that chartered the Rena, Mediterranean Shipping Company, regarding the companies “moral obligation to assist”. They advised Mr Joyce that they are looking to provide assistance in cash and non-cash terms. Additional financial difficulties may be faced as assessing culpability will be difficult until after the trial of the master and 2nd officer.

Mr David Farrar, affiliated with the New Zealand National Party has said in an article in the New Zealand Herald, that from what is known, the Rena was not blown off course but steered deliberately into the Astrolabe reef. He continues to say that it would be appropriate to have an independent review of the entire operation to see if there are any lessons to be learnt for the future.

Update as of 20:41 Tuesday 18th October 2011:

The latest reports from New Zealand are that the salvors were forced to postpone continued efforts to remove the remaining oil as 2-4 metre swells prohibited the removal barge Awanuia to remain safely moored to the rear of the Rena. Salvage is hoped to recommence on Wed 17th October when the weather conditions are predicted to be more favourable.

Andrew Berry, Maritime New Zealand’s salvage unit manager, has advised media that the front of the vessel is pinned to the reef but the stern of the ship is subjected to small movements from the tide and waves. There is a crack on the starboard side of the Rena which is being monitored closely. Mr Berry has said that plans are in place should the stern break free from the rest of the ship. A small amount of oil did leak from the Rena today and was dispersed rapidly by the strong weather conditions. At present, the situation and forthcoming preventative and mitigation measures can be speculated and planned for, but are ultimately dictated by the weather and the Rena herself.

The company who leased the ship, Mediterranean Shipping Company, (MSC), today gave a $1 million donation to aid financially with the clean-up. This follows from reports yesterday that Transport Minister, Steven Joyce, had stated that MSC were morally obliged to assist but MSC Managing Director, Kevin Clarke has said that “the donation was voluntarily given” and that they “genuinely feel the suffering” that is surrounding the entire incident. This has also been stated by Phil Abraham, the general manager of MSC New Zealand who has said that MSC were not forced into giving this donation, but felt a corporate responsibility to help. Tauranga’s mayor, Stuart Crosby has been reported as saying that this is not enough and that it will still be up to the Bay of Plenty residents to continue the restoration long after MSC has finished with the issue.

So far, of the 88 containers that have been lost overboard, 30 are still unaccounted for. With the death count for sea birds currently standing at nearly 1300, with many rare and vulnerable species amongst them, there can be little cause for celebration yet. Despite this, a group in Napier has created small woollen pyjamas to protect the little blue penguin from being ill by preening their oily feathers before rescue workers have been able to cleanse them properly.

With the master and 2nd officer due in court in New Zealand on Wednesday, it can be hoped that some answers to the mystery around the grounding and also of culpability will soon be delivered.

Update as of 16:00 Wednesday 19th October 2011:

A Maritime NZ diagram shows how the Rena is grounded on the Astrolabe Reef.

Today 3 salvors were back on board the Rena but weather conditions were still unfavourable to continue to remove oil. The weather has moved the stern slightly to the left overnight but the Rena still appears to be sitting firmly. Dive teams are being put into place to access submerged tanks on the starboard side when possible, but the primary concern is the removal of oil from the accessible tanks on the port side.

Volunteers have stepped back restoration works as the majority of oil on the beaches has now been removed. They are also struggling with the unfavourable weather conditions. The volunteers will continue to be called upon to assist with restoration operations, especially in the event of a further leak.

An article for the New Zealand Herald by National Party member Nikki Kaye states that despite belief that response to the incident was slow, a top level alert was issued only hours afterwards the grounding and experts were on-board the Rena preparing response strategies by the evening.

Today has also started to bring answers to some of the questions that are still surrounding the incident. Ship owners, the Greek company Costamare, have confirmed that their insurers, The Swedish Club, would meet the owner’s obligation in full. The Liberian registry, where the Rena was registered, has established that navigational errors caused the grounding. However their investigation into the grounding is also looking into any and all other factors that may have contributed to the incident.

The master and 2nd officer appeared in court today after being charged under section 65 of the Maritime Transport Act for “operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk”, and have been remanded until the 2nd November. The master’s lawyer, Paul Mabey QC has said that Crown lawyers have advised that more charges are likely to be filed. There was anger amongst the media and New Zealand communities at the decision of Judge Robert Wolff to continue to supress the names of the master and 2nd officer, but he advised that this decision was made to ensure their safety.

During the court proceedings, a group of 150 people held a protest in Tauranga against offshore oil drilling.

Update as of 14:00 Sunday 23rd October 2011:

The 4 crew members that have remained in New Zealand have now been allowed to fly home to the Philippines after aiding investigations into the grounding and finding that they will not be facing charges. The master, however, is likely to face an additional charge under the Resource Management Act when he and the 2nd/navigation officer are due back in court on November the 2nd.

The Government is still considering compensation packages for Tauranga and other Bay of Plenty businesses affected by the spill. There are growing concerns for the long term tourism industry as despite clean-up operations going well, the residual image of oily beaches may be what will persist in the public’s mind.

As of Thursday, there were still ~29 containers unaccounted for and searches are being conducted using sonar. Parts of containers and other debris are washing up on East Cape beaches. This is prompting fresh concern for wildlife as the oceanic currents provide this area with a ‘hot spot’ of rich feeding grounds for seabirds and whales. Seabird researcher Chris Gaskin fears that seabirds feeding offshore may be affected by the oil but never discovered, reducing the number of affected birds and giving the incident an inaccurate casualty total. This information comes as Little Blue Penguin casualties have reached ~120 individuals. There are 200-300 breeding pairs in the affected area and concerns are prevalent as this is the middle of the penguins breeding season. Many chicks will not survive as their parents have had to be taken to rescue centres. Following the news of volunteers knitting hundreds of sweaters to stop the penguins preening the oil from their feathers before they could be cleaned, it has been decided that the sweaters will not be used as there is the possibility that they will cause the penguins extra stress.

The salvage efforts to remove the remaining oil continue amid continuing delays. On Thursday a booster pump short circuited, meaning efforts were put on hold whilst the situation was rectified. A five day period of fine weather will allow salvors to continue to add to the 256 tonnes of oil that had been removed by Saturday evening. The large crack in the starboard has widened but has led to no significant increase in deterioration of the vessel. There was a further spill of 10 tonnes of oil on Saturday night but salvors were rapid in their response to herding the oil for removal.

Details of the Rena’s history have been released, prompting further speculation on the Flag of Convenience system. The Rena was built in 1990 -1992 and was purchased second hand with three other ships by Costamare in November 2010. The system has been criticised of letting substandard ships sail by registering them in countries where the regulations are more lenient. There are up to 3300 ships travelling the coasts of New Zealand every year and therefore it should be considered that accidents are inevitable. Bit with New Zealand government’s intention to boost offshore oil and gas exploration the chance of another incident increases. This is prompting many New Zealanders growing concern about the apparent trade-off between the environment and economy.

The confusion and uncertainty is being malevolently by racist and extreme right New Zealanders who are using the racial origins of the Filipino crew to carry out subsequent racial attacks on the ~20,000 Filipino’s living in New Zealand. The International Seafarers Action Centre, (ISAC), has defended the crew stating that it was International Shipping Rules that were to blame and not the crew. This however does not seem to have reduced the growing number of unprecedented racist attacks.

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