NZ oil ship captain charged


The captain of a container ship wedged on a reef off a popular New Zealand holiday spot appeared in court over its grounding today as more fuel fouled beaches in the country's worst environmental disaster in decades.

The 47,230-tonne Liberian-flagged Rena has been stranded on a reef 12 nautical miles off Tauranga on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island since running aground a week ago.

The ship's master and the second officer in charge of the navigational watch have both been charged under the Maritime Act, Maritime New Zealand said. The captain appeared in court today and surrendered his passport. The second officer will be in court tomorrow, the agency said.

The captain has been charged "for operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk", which carries a maximum fine of 10,000 NZ dollars (€5,760) or 12 months in prison.

Local media reported the ship's master, a Philippine national (44), made a brief appearance in court and was bailed for one week, without making a plea. His name was suppressed.

"There are substantial cracks and stress fractures now in the hull of the ship and therefore the probability of it breaking up has to be substantially increased," Prime Minister John Key said at a televised news conference in Tauranga today.

"Whoever is responsible for this has to be held to account," Mr Key said. "The responsibilities of those on the ship were to navigate a reef that is well documented. We're entitled to have answers about why that happened."

Heavy swells and strong winds pounded the vessel for a second day today, sending empty containers tumbling off the ship, which is listing at around 18 degrees, into the heaving seas.

"The bow appears to be still firmly wedged onto the reef, we have lost more than 30 containers from the stern and midships," Maritime New Zealand director Catherine Taylor told reporters.

Some of the containers were reported to be bobbing in the heavy seas, and others have been washed up on a small island, Motiti, about 8km from the ship.

Salvagers have mobilised three tugs to stabilise the stern of the ship, which is in danger of breaking away, Maritime New Zealand said. The tugs will either hold the stern on a reef while oil is removed, or pull it to shallow waters so that the oil can be extracted there, it said. Six vessels have also been deployed to catch debris floating in the water, the agency said.

The ship was carrying 1,368 containers, 11 of which are said to have hazardous substances in them. Shipping using the port of Tauranga, which is the country's biggest export port, was rerouted from the containers.

Authorities said the bad weather was helping to break up and disperse the estimated 300 tonnes of oil that escaped from the ship.

"That's a little bit frustrating because once the oil is on the beach we can actually deal with it, we can remove it from the beach relatively easily," said Ian Niblock, a spokesman for the clean-up operation.

Oil is now spread along 25km of the district's long, golden beaches, which are a magnet for surfers. Nearby waters have an international reputation for big-game fishing.

Several hundred people were scraping the clumps of thick, toxic, fuel oil, some as large as dinner plates, into plastic bags and large bins.

Booms have been placed over some harbour entrances to keep oil out of wetland and wildlife habitats. Around 50 seabirds have died and teams of naturalists have scrubbed and treated 20 more for oil contamination.

Refloating and salvage of the ship are the responsibility of the owner, Daina Shipping, a unit of Greece's Costamare Inc, and salvage experts, but any plan needs official approval. A floating crane able to remove containers from the ship is on its way from Singapore.