by Gareth Hughes
It is deeply concerning to see the stricken ship Rena, leaking oil into the ocean near Tauranga Harbour. This is looking like a full-scale environmental disaster.
With bad weather approaching, experts are saying it’s possible the Liberian-flagged ship will break up spilling up to 1700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and scattering its containers, some containing hazardous materials into the water. This would be catastrophic and our worst marine environmental disaster.
At a time when the world’s eyes are on New Zealand you’d think the Government would be acting decisively. I’d like to acknowledge the hundreds of officials working hard, and volunteers registering for the clean-up, though I am worried that no one has assumed overall responsibility.
There is coordination between the ship owners and the Government, which is great. However, it is important that the public knows who has ultimate responsibility, and for the sake of the environment, that should be the Government. Transport Minister Steven Joyce, has to show some leadership and assume responsibility. It’s a sticky situation and we can’t have the buck passed between Maritime New Zealand, the ship owners, the salvors Svitzer and the Government.
Under the Maritime New Zealand Act the Government has the power to instruct Maritime New Zealand to take control of the salvage. One of the lessons from the Deep Water Horizons incident in the Gulf of Mexico is that there needs to be a centralised point of command for both salvage and clean-up. I am hoping this constructive suggestion can be acted upon by Minister Joyce.
I’m off to Tauranga tomorrow to check it out but I’ve been amazed how slow and ponderous the response has seemed. Perhaps it is because all the information on the threats and actions haven’t been released publicly by the Government or perhaps it has just has been slow.
Questions have to be asked, why weren’t oil booms deployed, during calm weather to contain the spill. Why have we had to wait days for the salvor’s naval architect to fly to New Zealand? Why hasn’t the fuel been pumped off the ship already?
The Government acted very fast to assume control of the Auckland waterfront after the Rugby World Cup transport fiasco, they just passed surveillance legislation under urgency yet when it comes to the environment they haven’t acted in haste.
I desperately hope the worst-case scenario doesn’t play out and this tragedy can be resolved soon, but if anything it highlights the risks to New Zealand of oil spills as we as a nation consider deep-sea oil drilling.