WELLINGTON — Rough weather on Tuesday forced salvage teams to halt pumping oil from a stricken container ship off the New Zealand coast in what has turned into the country’s worst environmental disaster in decades. The Liberian-flagged Rena has been stuck for 13 days on a reef 14 miles (22 km) off Tauranga on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It has already spilled about 350 tons of thick, toxic fuel and some of its hundreds of containers into the sea. Winds gusting up to 65 kph (42 mph) and sea swells cresting as high as 4 meters forced the evacuation of teams from the 236-meter (775 feet) ship. “The forecast seems to suggest that the winds will kick around to the west which should make things slightly calmer, so fingers crossed they should be back on the job in the near future,” Matthew Watson a spokesman for Svitzer Salvage said on Radio NZ. So far around 90 tons of the estimated 1,300 tons of the oil on board have been pumped on to a barge. Authorities have been concerned that bad weather could possibly send the stern section, which contains more than 1,000 tons of oil, tumbling into 60 meters of water. “The ship is stable and remains in the same condition as it was yesterday — with cracks down each side but is still together in one piece,” said Andrew Berry of Maritime NZ, the government agency which supervises the shipping industry. It said a small amount of oil escaped from the ship overnight during the rougher weather, but winds were blowing it away from the shore and dispersing it.
Beaches, fouled with dinner-tray sized lumps of oil, have been largely cleaned up after thousands of volunteers joined soldiers and specialists. Oil has washed up along about 60 km (37 miles) of the coast, which is popular with surfers and fishermen. Nearly 1,300 birds have died in the spill, which is seen as New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster in decades.
The ship’s captain and second officer, both from the Philippines, are due to reappear in court on Wednesday on charges of operating the 47,320 ton ship in a dangerous manner.