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Oil pumping delayed, Rena stern 'precarious'

Published: 8:57AM Saturday October 15, 2011 Source: ONE News

The stranded ship Rena remains unstable and salvage crews held off pumping more than 1300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil off the vessel last night.

Earlier in the day Maritime New Zealand said preparations for fuel recovery had been ongoing on the vessel, which grounded on Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga 10 days ago, and fuel pumping was expected to begin at the end of the day.

However, Maritime NZ salvage expert Bruce Anderson yesterday afternoon said the necessary equipment had not been able to be installed in time, and it was too dangerous to start pumping oil last night.

Anderson said the ship has been found to be unstable. Though the bow of the ship is placed firmly on the reef, the stern is hanging in space.

"The stern is in a precarious situation - it's not as stable as we thought," he said.

"You can see that the bow, the whole bow, has been turned off to one side and what you've also got is that whole forward section of that big crack, that's been really well wedged in."

Anderson said divers have inspected both sides of the ship, and the data they provide will help understand exactly what is holding the ship in place.

He said one seasoned salvage expert said the Rena is one of the worst wrecks he has ever worked on.

"The team leader, who's onboard there, he's a very experience salvage operator," said Anderson.

"He was saying this is one of the scariest times he's been on a  vessel because when they first got on it was creaking and groaning - it sounded like a vessel dying, in effect - the worst he'd ever been on."

"They (salvage crews) don't want to be inside the vessel, they're working on it on the outside because that's the safest place."

Platforms attached

Earlier yesterday workers attached four platforms to the side of the listing vessel giving them a level surface to work on.

"Effectively you've got a big crack round the ship and so you've got two parts of a ship. So it's a particularly dangerous operation," Anderson told ONE News.

"If you're looking for a level, it's probably one of the most dangerous operations they can do."

The pumps where expected to be lowered into the tanks yesterday, but weather, stability of the vessel and equipment did not permit this.

However, environmental chemists were lowered on to Rena to make assessments of the potentially noxious and hazardous gases in the tanks.

There is noticeably less oil on the beaches, but they are all being closely monitored, Maritime NZ said.

More areas on alert for oil

The team leading the salvage operation admitted yesterday afternoon that bad weather next week could lead to a new spill from the wrecked ship.

But Whakatane and Ohope beach locals are already bracing themselves for its arrival.

Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby told ONE News that locals are very much concerned about the moving oil spill.

"I think the message for us is to improve the communication and that's happening, because that's critical to both the media but particularly to the local community who want to know what's going on."

A field centre has been set up in Whakatane to prepare for any oil that reaches beaches there.

However Maritime NZ said this is a "pre-emptive measure" as the oil trajectory modelling does not show oil heading towards Whakatane at this stage.

"I have great fears about the fact that maybe we could have done something quicker," said volunteer Miria Black.

Crosby said the biggest concern now is to protect the environment.

A hastily organised meeting in Ohope yesterday drew more than 80 people, and volunteers are preparing for the worst and the shores are under careful watch.

People in that area are being trained to clean up the beaches, Maritime director Catherine Taylor said.

A patrol aircraft flies over the coastline every morning checking for oil, and a preliminary assessment from Opotiki to East Cape has been undertaken to plan for projected oil reaching beaches there.

Volunteer training and equipment deployment in the eastern region is also taking place.

Clean-up workers are the only people allowed on beaches between Mt Maunganui and Maketu Point and 2000 volunteers were involved in the clean up yesterday.

Iwi in Whakatane and further south are being consulted on clean-up plans in case the oil travels there with the westerly winds.

"They (iwi) appreciate the inclusion (with the cleaning) and being able to give a cultural overview." said iwi liaison Joe Harawira.

Three clean up sessions are being planned for today, with two at Papamoa and one at Maketu.

The beach closures from Mt Maunganui to Maketu will remain in place over the weekend.

There has been some oiling of small private vessels, Maritime NZ said.

A decontamination site for private vessels was to be established yesterday.

Oil heads back out to sea

Most of the oil is heading back out to sea, resulting in less on the beaches yesterday.

Coastal science expert Chris Battershill told TV ONE's Breakfast this is a good thing for the recovery operation.

He said Papamoa Beach, where he was speaking to Breakfast from this morning, is looking remarkably good compared to the last few days.

Containers overboard

There were no reports of any more containers being lost overboard the ship yesterday, and the latest air patrol found no floating containers.

Maritime New Zealand has identified about half of the 88 containers that have fallen off.

Some huge steel boxes washed up on Mount Maunganui beach on Thursday, spewing their contents over the sand.

Teams with heavy machinery have been working through the day to get the last of them off and hoped to have them removed by last night. 

Port of Tauranga will be doing an underwater sonar sweep today to make sure the tide has not shifted some containers into shipping paths.

Shipping operations continue as normal and the situation will continue to be monitored.

One thousand birds die

Nevertheless, nearly 1000 birds have died as a result of the oil slick, while 140 oiled birds are at Te Monga wildlife facility being cared for.

Wildlife operation manager Brent Stevenson said most of the birds that remain alive are little blue penguins.

There are now 34 rare dotterels in captivity at the centre - they have been caught to protect them from the oil. There are only 100 dotterels known to be in the Bay of Plenty region and the wildlife team is aiming to capture at least 60 of these, to ensure the population is protected.

There are only about 1500 dotterels in existence. A special aviary is being built at the wildlife facility to cater to the needs of these rare birds.

Four fur seals have also been brought into the wildlife facility. Three of those will soon be released while one will remain for further treatment.

Volunteers who want to assist the wildlife response should contact the wildlife team on 0800 333 771.