Asia-Pacific

Tonnes of oil leak from ship aground off New Zealand

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Media captionMaritime New Zealand Incident Controller Rob Service said "the damage is quite extensive"

Several tonnes of oil have leaked from a cargo ship which has run aground close to one of New Zealand's top tourist destinations, officials say.

The maritime authorities in New Zealand believe at least 10 tonnes of oil have already seeped from the Rena.

This has created a 5km-long (3 miles) oil slick from the 47,000-tonne container ship.

Several Naval vessels have been sent to assist the salvage operation which has been hampered by poor weather.

If the ship breaks up, it could release 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the Bay of Plenty, home to whales, dolphins, seals, penguins and a variety of other birds.

The Rena ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef about 12 nautical miles from Tauranga Harbour on Wednesday.

Svitzer Salvage, the company handling the ship's rescue, said the oil needs to be secured then removed before any refloat attempt is possible.

A spokesperson, Matthew Watson, said the outlook for the ship had improved but more oil could end up in the water.

"The vessel is damaged in the hull. There could be residual oil flushing around and that could be influenced by waves lapping against it or by tidal movements. So, while it is certainly looking better today (Saturday), no-one should be complacent," he said.

'Disastrous'

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said on Friday that salvage teams were working hard to remove oil from the stricken ship to protect the bay.

"The difficulty is that the situation is deteriorating and according to the advice I've received, there's the possibility it could break up and sink," Mr Joyce told the New Zealand Herald.

Officials said on Saturday that pumping oil from the stricken vessel could start on Sunday, depending on the damage of the ship and the weather.

The Department of Conservation has established two wildlife rescue centres and dispatched teams to scour the beaches and islands of the Bay of Plenty looking for oil-covered animals and birds.

Image caption Teams are scouring the Bay of Plenty for oil-covered animals and birds

Four seabirds were found dead in the oil slick on Thursday, and Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) said more birds covered in oil were discovered on Friday.

MNZ said it was preparing for the possibility the existing slick would hit the coast in the coming days after dispersants sprayed from aircraft proved ineffective.

"It has the potential to be very, very serious indeed, simply because of the age of the ship, the damage she's sustained, and the 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel on board," Andrew Berry of MNZ told Radio New Zealand.

MNZ has established a one-kilometre maritime exclusion zone around the ship and warned that the fuel oil is toxic.

The animal welfare group Forest and Bird said the timing of the accident, in the middle of the breeding season for birds, was "disastrous".

Australia is sending experts to New Zealand to help mop up the spill.

Three officials from the Sydney Ports Corporation are leaving for New Zealand on Saturday, along with more staff from New South Wales (NSW) Maritime and other agencies. The Australian state of New South Wales is also sending a large oil skimmer to assist the New Zealand authorities.

It is not known why the Liberian-flagged ship ran aground on the reef. None of the 25 crew was injured.

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