Greek-owned ship breaks up off New Zealand coast

A stricken container ship wedged on a reef off a New Zealand holiday spot has broken up in stormy weather but is still on the reef after running aground three months ago, raising fears of a fresh oil spill.

The 47,230-tonne Liberian-flagged Rena has been stranded on a reef 22 km (12 miles) off Tauranga on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island since running aground on Oct. 5.

Maritime authorities said both sections of the ship were on the Astrolabe Reef, with the stern section about 30 metres (100 ft) away from the bow after being pounded by wild weather overnight.

“While the two sections remain on the reef, both are now open to the sea and vulnerable to more damage,» said Maritime New Zealand Salvage Unit Manager David Billington.

The stern section of the 236-metre ship was listing heavily at about 24 degrees and was heaving in swells of about 4.5 metres, he said.

“The bow section is still firmly wedged in place on the reef, but it is open to flooding from the sea and is expected to deteriorate further in the rough conditions,» Billington said.

Hundreds of containers stacked on the ship’s deck had been tipped into the sea when it broke apart.

National On Scene Commander Alex van Wijngaarden said the response teams had been mobilised, including oil spill and wildlife experts.

“Any oil coming ashore in the coming days is expected to be much less the amount that washed up after the Rena first went aground,» van Wijngaarden said.

Salvage teams have pumped more than 1,000 tonnes out of the ship though some remained onboard.

Thousands of birds were killed by the earlier spill and it has taken months to clean up the shore. It is New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster in decades.

Van Wijngaarden said there was no way of knowing exactly how much oil was spilled when the bow and stern separated, but some could still be trapped in the stern.

Environment Minister Nick Smith said there was a much lower risk of serious environmental damage.

“The risk to the environment is a fragment of what it was, with at the most tens of tonnes of oil rather than hundreds of tonnes that potentially could be spilled,» Smith said.

The bad weather was expected to ease over the next 3 or 4 days.

Braemar Howells, a company which recovers containers, estimated that up to 300 containers of the some 830 left on the Rena were lost overboard when the two sections of the ship separated.

About 390 containers had been safely removed earlier.

The Rena’s captain and navigation officer, both Philippine nationals, have been charged with operating a vessel in a dangerous manner, and releasing toxic substances, which carry maximum fines of NZ$300,000 or two years in prison.

They are due to appear in court again next month.

The vessel is owned by Daina Shipping, a unit of Greece’s Costamare Inc. and was under charter to Mediterranean Shipping.


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