NZ salvage crews race to pump oil from stricken vessel

Soldiers continue clean-up operations on the Bay of Plenty coastline on New Zealand's North Island on Thursday, after more oil from the stricken vessel Rena washed up
Image caption Hundreds of people are helping with the clean-up, and thousands more have volunteered

Salvage teams are preparing to pump the remaining fuel out of a cracked cargo ship which is listing badly off the New Zealand coast.

On Friday, the teams worked to install equipment and platforms on the high side of the Rena to provide a level base for the operation.

Weather conditions were calm but the ship remained "very, very dangerous", a salvage company worker reportedly said.

The hull is cracked and the ship could break up imminently, officials say.

More than 300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil are estimated to have spilled from the hull already, polluting many kilometres of nearby beaches.

Last week, crews drained about 10 tonnes of oil from the vessel before bad weather forced them to suspend the operation.

Environmentalists have warned of a disaster for wildlife if all 1,700 tonnes of oil and 200 tonnes of diesel held on board spill into the sea.

The Greek-owned and Liberian-flagged cargo ship ran aground on 5 October on Astrolabe Reef, 22km (14 miles) from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand's North Island.

An investigation is under way as to how the accident happened on a well-marked reef in calm weather.

Dead birds

The Rena is perched precariously on the reef, listing at an angle of up to 25-degrees. A huge crack encircles its hull and Maritime New Zealand says all that is holding the boat together are its internal structures.

Image caption Salvage officials say they believe the ship's oil tanks are still intact

The salvage crews had hoped to resume pumping on Friday, but the complexity of preparations forced them to put off the operation until Saturday at the earliest.

"There is some hope... they might be able to start pumping oil tomorrow, but we cannot pin time frames on things - that ship is very, very dangerous," Matthew Watson of the Svitzer salvage company told Reuters news agency.

He said oil leaks from the ship had slowed and there was a "reasonable level of confidence" that the stern tanks were intact and would hold.

Oil and debris from the boat, including some shipping containers, have washed up along a 60km section of the coast and a clean-up operation is under way.

Some 1,000 people - including soldiers, wildlife experts and residents - have joined the operation and authorities say some 3,000 in total have volunteered to help. Some 1,000 birds are said to have died.

Apology dismissed

The ship's Filipino captain and second officer have been charged over the incident.

Six sailors from the vessel, who are being questioned, are being held at a secret location for their own protection amid public anger over the affair, AFP news agency quoted the ship's agent Mike Hodgins as saying.

The agency also quoted a Filipino community group as saying one of its members had been abused in the street and appealing for the disaster not to become a "racial issue".

The ship's owner, Costamare Shipping Inc, has issued an apology, saying the ship's captain was experienced, with an "exemplary record", and the ship was in good condition.

"However, to the people of Tauranga, we want to say that we are deeply sorry for the situation that has arisen and the threat you are now facing from fuel oil from the vessel washing up on the beaches in your beautiful part of the world," the statement said.

It said it had sent "the best experts from around the world to help deal with the situation".

But Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby dismissed the statement, saying on local television that it was "half an apology and a lot of excuse", Reuters reported.

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