Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 40, June 2012
It has been a busy few months for the Rena Response Group, with the downscaling of the emergency oil spill response, a ‘thank you’ event held for volunteers, the sentencing of the Master and Second Officer of Rena on charges relating to the grounding, and good progress being made on the salvage operation.
Oil spill response
On 4 May, the National On Scene Commander reduced the emergency oil spill response to the Rena grounding from a Tier 3, or national level, to a Tier 2, or regional level response.
The Bay of Plenty Regional Council has now assumed responsibility for ongoing monitoring and future clean-up activity with respect to any further oil spilled from the wreck.
This decision to scale down the response was made after careful analysis in consultation with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, taking several key factors into account:
- Regular assessments of the wreck confirmed the threat of a further significant oil spill from the wreck was minimal.
- Ongoing and regular surveys by the oil spill response team of previously affected areas confirmed very low levels of residual oil in the environment and minimal amounts of oil coming ashore. The levels are so low that clean-up activity has not been warranted.
- Site visits to previously affected areas with key stakeholders, including the regional council, iwi and environmental experts, confirmed areas have reached a level where no further clean-up activity is needed.
- The volume of calls from the public reporting sightings of oil on the beaches or in the water has been consistently low for the past few months.
National On Scene Commander Rob Service says the transition marked a real milestone in the response to the Rena grounding and was testimony to many months of hard work by the oil spill response team.
“This has been an amazing effort and we have seen some incredible teamwork, expertise and hard graft put in by so many people,” says Rob.
“At the start of this response, we had international oil spill response professionals assisting us, we had the New Zealand Defence Force out in their hundreds cleaning these beaches, and of course we had many, many volunteers giving up their time for the beaches they love. The local councils and iwi also played huge roles in responding to this incident.
“Over time, this massive effort has downsized to the point where, in recent weeks, we have had just a few oil spill response experts surveying and re-surveying the affected areas to assess whether we were ready to reduce from a Tier 3 to a Tier 2 response. It’s a real achievement to reach this point.”
Earlier in the year, MNZ, along with other response agencies including Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Tauranga City Council and Western Bay of Plenty District Council, hosted a thank you event at the main Mount Maunganui beach for volunteers who assisted with the clean-up. The thank you barbecue featured bands and games for children and provided an opportunity for the volunteers to be formally thanked by the heads of the response agencies.
Rob says the readiness of the Bay of Plenty community to roll up their sleeves demonstrated the passion the local residents have for their coastline.
“We would never have made the progress we did as quickly as we did if it hadn’t been for the volunteers’ support and their patience in cleaning and re-cleaning the beaches,” he says. “Oil spill response can be incredibly disheartening, because it takes a lot of work to get a stretch of beach clean, then the tide comes in and washes fresh oil up, and you have to start all over again.
“The dedication we saw from the volunteers was nothing short of inspiring.”
On 25 May, the Master and Second Officer (Navigation) of Rena were sentenced in the Tauranga District Court on a range of charges relating to the grounding and its aftermath.
The two men were sentenced to seven months in prison.
The Director of MNZ, Keith Manch, welcomed the sentencing, saying the two officers had now been held to account for their part in the grounding and subsequent events.
“In this case, the Master and the Second Officer have breached the most basic fundamental principles of safe navigation.
“The sentencing is the result of a thorough and careful investigation by the MNZ investigations team and is another significant milestone in the ongoing Rena response,” says Keith.
In a separate prosecution, MNZ has also charged the owner of Rena, Daina Shipping Co, under sections 15(B) and 338 (1B) of the Resource Management Act 1991, which relate to the “discharge of harmful substances from ships” in the coastal marine area.
The charge carries a maximum fine of $600,000 and $10,000 for every day the offending continues.
The prosecution is ongoing, with the next call due in the Tauranga District Court on 18 July.
The government is also engaged in negotiations with Rena’s owners and insurers relating to the costs from the Rena grounding. This is an ongoing process and unrelated to the two prosecutions.
Smit and Svitzer, working in a joint salvage operation, made good progress in the first part of the year. More than 900 of the original 1,368 containers on board Rena have now been recovered to port.
Salvage work became even more difficult and dangerous following the break-up of the wreck in January. In April, the stern section sank further down onto the reef, and is now almost completely submerged. The bow section remains stuck hard on the Astrolabe Reef.
Salvors have used both the Smit Borneo crane and dive teams to locate and remove containers, debris and pieces of the wreck itself from the marine environment. The team also continued to extract the remaining fuel oil, left in difficult-to-access pockets around the wreck, whenever possible.
In June, the owners and insurers of Rena announced a milestone in the salvage had been reached, in that all accessible containers in the bow section had been removed, leaving just 18 damaged or empty containers in that section.
In a statement, the owners noted the Smit Borneo had completed its contribution to the operation and was likely to return to its home base in Singapore in the next few weeks.
The Smit/Svitzer joint venture achieved the important milestone one month ahead of schedule and the statement thanked salvors for their efforts and the positive contribution they made over the past eight months.
The owners have now issued a tender for the wreck removal process. Braemar Howells, the company appointed by the owners to retrieve containers and debris lost overboard, has taken on an expanded role to work inside the exclusion zone while that process takes place.
This role will involve overseeing the wreck’s safety and security, monitoring its status day to day, and minimising and clearing any debris that escapes from the vessel through adverse weather conditions.