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New Zealand: Stricken ship's captain faces court

The captain of the cargo ship that spilled oil off the New Zealand coast has been charged over the incident – which has been described as the country’s biggest maritime environmental disaster.

A dead fish is seen next to a chunk of fuel oil on the Mount Maunganui beach
A dead fish is seen next to a chunk of fuel oil on the Mount Maunganui beach
Image: AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

THE CAPTAIN OF a cargo ship that has spilled hundreds of tons of oil since striking a reef off the New Zealand coast appeared in a court today to face criminal charges.

The 44-year-old Filipino, whose name has not been revealed publicly, was charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk and was released on bail when he appeared in Tauranga District Court, near where his ship appeared to be breaking up in mountainous seas.

The Liberian-flagged Rena — which ran aground 5 October on the Astrolabe Reef, about 22 kilometres from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand’s North Island — was showing obvious structural strain from the worsening conditions, with a vertical crack apparent Wednesday on the starboard side of its hull from the deck to the waterline. About 70 containers have fallen overboard as the 236-metre vessel has moved onto a steeper lean.

Maritime New Zealand, which is managing the emergency response, described the crack as a “substantial structural failure” and warned that the stern may break away. Three tug boats were mobilised to hold the stern on the reef, while further efforts were made to remove the oil, or to tow the stern to shallow water, the agency said in a statement.

Containers continue to move

The piles of containers that remain on deck have continued to move, making it dangerous for salvage crews to work on board. Six vessels have been mobilised to intercept the drifting containers and other debris in the water.

Maritime New Zealand commander Nick Quinn said his priority remained cleaning up the oil.

“Until now, we have had a light oiling of beaches,” he said. “This will significantly increase as more oil washes ashore over the coming days.”

The captain’s lawyer, Paul Mabey, requested that Judge Robert Wolff suppress his client’s name because, he said, “there is a real potential that some persons may want to take matters into their own hands,” the New Zealand Herald reported on its website. It also reported that the grounding happened on the captain’s birthday.

If convicted, the captain could face a fine of up to 10,000 New Zealand dollars (€5,670) and 12 months in prison. His next court appearance is 19 October, when authorities say more charges are likely.

The government has demanded to know why the ship crashed into the well-charted reef in calm weather, but the vessel’s owner has given no explanation.

New Zealand’s biggest maritime environmental disaster

Maritime New Zealand estimates that between 200 and 300 metric tons of heavy fuel oil have spilled from the hull, leading New Zealand’s environment minister, Nick Smith, to call it the country’s biggest maritime environmental disaster. Clumps of the oil have washed up on pristine beaches near Tauranga. Maritime New Zealand spokeswoman Anne Coughlan said that 200 oiled birds had been found dead and that another 41 were being cleaned at a wildlife emergency centre.

Witnesses said dead fish were also washing ashore as local volunteers with plastic gloves and buckets worked to clean the oily clots from the white sand.

Weather on the reef was terrible Wednesday, with swells up to 5 metres, Maritime New Zealand spokesman Steve Jones told The Associated Press. The brutal conditions were making it impossible for a salvage crew to board the ship, he said. Without the salvage crew aboard, oil cannot be pumped out of the ship.

“It’s appalling,” Jones said of the weather. “Everything is still in a holding pattern.”

Forecasters were predicting the swells would ease to 2 metres by Thursday, at which point salvage crews might be able to try to board the ship, Jones said.

There were 1,368 containers on board, 11 of which contained hazardous substances, the maritime agency said. The containers holding hazardous materials were not among the 70 that had fallen overboard, Jones said. Still, it is highly likely that more containers will topple off because of the rough weather and the ship’s steep list, he said.

In a statement, the owners of the vessel, Greece-based Costamare Inc., 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.

Read: Oil spill spreads in New Zealand>

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