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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I'm glad someone picked me up: Penguin gets his feathers cleaned but New Zealand's worst-ever environmental disaster deepens and ship's captain is arr

-53 birds found dead and 17 getting emergency treatment to remove oil from their feathers
-Captain of the ship is arrested and faces maritime charges
-At least 390 tons of heavy fuel oil have spilled from the hull
-Weather concerns have meant that efforts to extract the oil have been abandoned

By Jessica Satherley

I'm all white: One of the rescued oil-coated penguins recuperates at a wildlife centre in Tauranga but the situation is worsening as bad weather off the New Zealand coast batters the stricken tanker Rena

This penguin is lucky enough to be able to see his white feathers again after being caught in the slick of New Zealand's worst-ever environmental disaster but many more will not be so fortunate as the crisis deepens.

This bird was cleaned up at the wildlife centre in Tauranga where up to 350 more tonnes of oil has been spilled from the 'Rena' tanker, which lies stricken off the coast.

But clumps of heavy oil from the Liberia-flagged Rena have washed up on pristine beaches near Tauranga in the North Island, and environmental officials said 53 birds were found dead and 17 were getting emergency treatment to remove oil from their feathers.

Before and after: Left, the rescued penguin gets a thorough scrubbing after being plucked from the oily waters, and right, he shows off his two-tone feathers once again

'This event has come to a scale where it is New Zealand's most significant environmental maritime disaster,' Environment Minister Nick Smith told reporters in Tauranga, adding that the clean-up would take weeks.

However, the situation is worsening. Rough weather battered the cargo ship throughout Tuesday before about 70 containers fell overboard, forcing the ship onto a steeper lean.

And in another development, the captain of the ship Rena was arrested and will appear in court Wednesday morning, facing charges under New Zealand's Maritime Act.

Stricken: This Liberian-flagged shipping boat ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef near New Zealand's Tauranga Harbour last Wednesday

Worsening situation: Rough weather battered the cargo ship throughout yesterday, causing about 70 containers to fall overboard, forcing the ship onto a steeper lean

Rough conditions: Heavy seas and misty weather surround the cargo ship Rena that is stuck on the Astrolabe Reef, about 14miles from Tauranga

The ship has been sinking since it ran aground last Wednesday on the Astrolabe Reef, about 14 miles from Tauranga Harbour, and the New Zealand government has demanded to know why the ship crashed into the well-charted reef in calm weather.

The ship owner has given no reason for the grounding, but says it is cooperating with authorities.

Rough weather in recent days has kept salvage crews away.

On Monday night, the 775ft (236metre) ship shifted significantly, spilling hundreds of tons of oil from an unidentified rupture in the hull, said Nick Bohm, a spokesman for Maritime New Zealand which is managing the emergency response.

Pollution: A man walks past fuel oil that washed up on beaches at Papamoa, near Tauranga

Clean-up: Volunteers take an oiled little blue penguin out of the pool after the recovering session at the wildlife facility in Tauranga

Up to 390tons (350 metric tons) of heavy fuel oil spilled from the hull on Tuesday, a rate about five times worse than during the initial days of the spill, Smith said.

Bohm said a salvage crew had to be removed from the ship late on Tuesday morning because ocean swells of 7-to-10ft (2-to-3metres) made conditions too dangerous.

The swells were expected to increase as high as 16ft (5metres), he said.

Without the salvage crew aboard, oil cannot be pumped out of the ship.

'We're on standby at the moment and we'll see what's happening with the ship and they'll be redeployed as quickly as possible,' Bohm said of the salvage crew.

Environmental protectors: A crew disposes of oil washed ashore from the stricken ship

Difficult work: Conservation officials remove dead seabirds coated in thick oil

Volunteers help the clean-up operation. Plans to extract the oil from the vessel itself have been abandoned for the time being as the weather is expected to be terrible

'We're not saying it's going to break up yet; we're not convinced,' he added, referring to the ship.

Divers are scheduled to inspect damage to the hull on Wednesday, Bohm said.

Maritime New Zealand said in a statement that a beach clean-up began early Tuesday and that more teams would be deployed on Wednesday when oil is expected to reach the shore in greater quantities.

'A significant amount of oil is expected to come ashore in the next days,' the statement said.

Rescue teams were also searching the shore for more wildlife affected by the oil.

Marine crews began an operation on Sunday to extract up to 1,900 tons (1,700 metric tons) of heavy fuel oil from the stricken ship - the equivalent of about 10,700 barrels.

But they had to halt the pumping Monday after managing to remove just 11 tons (10 metric tons).

In a statement, the owners of the ship, Greece-based Costamare said they were 'cooperating fully with local authorities' and were making every effort to 'control and minimise the environmental consequences of this incident'.

The company did not offer any explanation for the grounding.
Globules of thick, black oil washed up on the beach showed yesterday that it's a race against time in order to save New Zealand's stunning coastline.

Fist-sized clumps of oil were found at Mount Maunganui beach, a favourite spot for surfers, according to Maritime New Zealand, the agency responsible for shipping in the region.

The beach is about 100miles south-east of Auckland.

Because Rena a cargo ship rather than an oil tanker, any spill would be small in comparison to disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which dumped an estimated 262,000 barrels of oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

But because the ship is close to shore, the oil could still foul delicate estuaries in an area known for its pristine environment.

The operation is expected to last at least two more days once it resumes.

A shag covered in oil is helped by wildlife veterinarian Dr Brett Gartrell and Aimee Forster at the wildlife rehabilitation facility in Tauranga, New Zealand

Devastation to wildlife: Environmental officials said 53 birds were found dead and 17 were getting emergency treatment to remove oil from their feathers

About 200 people are working on the operation, and New Zealand's defence force has about 300 people standing by in case major beach clean-ups are needed.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key visited the area on Monday and demanded answers.

'This is a ship that's ploughed into a well documented reef in calm waters in the middle of the night at 17 knots, so somebody needs to tell us why that's happened,' he said.

The Rena was built in 1990 and was carrying 1,351 containers of goods when it ran aground, according to the owners.

In addition to the oil, authorities are also concerned about some potentially dangerous goods aboard, including four containers of ferro-silicon.

Authorities said they would make it a priority to remove those goods as part of their operation.



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