by Gareth Hughes
This morning the Transport Accident Investigation Commissions initial report into the Rena grounding was released and Maritime NZ appeared in Select Committee for questioning. It’s good to get some answers but we are still only seeing a small part of the picture and need an independent inquiry into the Rena and oil spill response.
The accident report shows corners were cut to get to Tauranga before 3am, records were falsified and the crew was confused by a variety of factors before the collision with Astrolabe Reef. I think it shows the need for better regulation in New Zealand’s waters to protect our environment and taxpayers from ships that cut corners because of a commercial imperative. We also need to be seriously considering compulsory shipping lanes for some vessels to stop the likelihood of another Rena occurring.
In Select Committee Maritime New Zealand incredibly argued that the public’s concerns about the oil spill response was down to Maritime NZ’s media management; not at all based in the reality on the ground in the Bay of Plenty. As though if they had managed the media better less wildlife would have be
It is clear Maritime NZ is systemically and critically underfunded. Maritime NZ’s budget was frozen in 2008 and was $3m in deficit for the financial year; the Oil Pollution Fund was also running at a deficit and had been reduced from $12m to only $3.4m and funding of the Rescue Coordination Centre NZ was also running a deficit and its reserves depleted. It baffles the mind to wonder why they reduced cruise ship levies and weren’t taking all the levies available to them when they were in the red. Ultimately the funding problems led to the taxpayer picking up the tab.
Given the Rena’s costs may rise to as much as $130m it strikes me as extremely naive for officials to argue there was little risk of an oil spill so the Oil Pollution Fund could be drawn down to irresponsible levels.
Now we have Kiwis possibly heading off to courts in Europe to get compensation given we have ridiculously low liability limits of only $12m under the Maritime Transport Act and $600,000 under the Resource Management Act. Our Government has been remiss to not adopt the 2001 Bunkers Convention and the 1996 Limit to Liability for Maritime Claims Protocol which would have more than doubled the liability cap for the Rena disaster from $12 million to $29 million.
A 2010 review of their oil spill preparedness argued that they had adequate equipment to deal with a spill of 3500 tonnes, yet when the Rena hit, spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil we needed two aeroplanes full of equipment to travel to New Zealand. Maritime NZ also ignored business and union recommendations for a rapid-response multi-purpose vessel which may have helped in those early days after the spill.
We can learn from the Rena experience and work harder to protect our environment from future oil spills. There are solutions that will protect our valuable coast and ocean environment.