Coast Under Threat As More Rena Containers Overboard

[First published in New Zealand Herald 8 January 2012]

Up to 300 containers from the stricken ship Rena have been washed overboard and most are likely to sink, authorities say.

At a press conference held in Tauranga a spokeswoman from environmental cleanup specialist Braemar Howells Claudine Sharpe said "between 200 to 300 containers" had been washed overboard after the ship was pounded by heavy swells up to 6 metres on Saturday night.

The ship's stern is now listing at 23 degrees to starboard while the bow section remains firmly wedged on Astrolabe Reef, where it crashed into on October 5.

Earlier this morning Maritime New Zealand officials flew over the ship which was surrounded by murky waters as tonnes of milk powder from one of the ship's containers spilled out.

Of the missing containers, Ms Sharpe said 30 had been identified and 15 of those tagged and corralled in an offshore area.

"At this stage we have lost quite a lot of containers," she said.

"We are looking at a round figure of around 200 to 300 cotnainers. Of those 20 per cent will float - the remainder will sink."

Ms Sharpe said the top most containers had been tagged with transponders and she was confident these would be recovered.

She said resources were in place if anything comes ashore.

"We will deal with it but as I said our main priority is to stop it coming ashore if we can."

Maritime New Zealand salvage unit manager Dave Billington said reports of containers being lost overboard started coming through last night about 8pm.

He said MNZ staff viewed the ship this morning and found its after part had swung about 13 degrees to starboard and had completely seperated from the forepart.

"The distance we estimate is about 20 to 30 metres," he said.

"The ship has broken clean in two."

Fears are mounting further oil could leak.

The vessel ran aground the reef on October 5, spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil and containers into the ocean which took months of clean-up efforts. Spilt oil killed hundreds of birds.

Just last week the ship was pounded by bad weather, causing it to break into two pieces which remained firmly on the reef.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council has issued navigational warnings for shipping and boat users to avoid new hazards fallen from the ship.

Floating containers have been found northwest of the Rena. A large amount of debris has been sighted downwind of the vessel, and more is expected to wash ashore today.

The debris includes timber and bags of milk powder.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council water management group manager Eddie Grogan said the regional council was currently reassessing the three nautical mile exclusion zone around the Rena.

"We will provide more information once we've assessed the situation, however we anticipate the exclusion zone will be increased,"' he said.

He said while the conditions might be good for surfers, people should be aware that a large amount of debris is in the water including the area from Waihi Beach to Mayor Island to Maketu.

"We're asking people to be conscious of the hazards and to be sensible and careful."

The National Response Team has been activated to respond to the potential release of oil from the ship and treat any affected wildlife.

Weather conditions continued to be poor, with severe weather expected to pound the area for the next three to four days.

All vessels in the area are recommended to navigate with extreme caution.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council recommends all vessels to proceed at slow speed, keep a good lookout and travel through the area in daylight only. The debris field is extensive and its movement is unpredictable and could extend further.

They say anyone found in the exclusion zone without the express permission of the harbourmaster may be fined $200 or could be prosecuted.