Weather halts New Zealand oil leak ship recovery

The Rena, grounded off New Zealand, leaking oil and listing badly - 15 October 2011
Image caption There are fears the next weather system of high winds and heavy swells could break apart the Rena

An operation to pump oil off a stranded cargo ship off the northern coast of New Zealand has been halted while more bad weather hits the region.

The Rena, stuck on a reef, is leaking oil. There are large cracks in its hull and the ship is listing badly.

Officials say swells of up to 4m (13ft) are hitting the ship. Fresh oil has been sighted leaking from it.

More than 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil have spilled into the water already, killing more than 1,000 sea birds.

An earlier attempt to remove the remaining fuel from the Rena was abandoned a week ago due to bad weather.

'Light sheen'

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ), in charge of the emergency operation, said about 90 tonnes of heavy fuel oil had been pumped off the ship on to a barge before the worsening weather forced a halt.

The salvage crew sealed the ship's fuel tanks and closed the watertight doors before leaving the vessel, said MNZ in a statement.

Image caption Hundreds of volunteers, backed up by the army, have been cleaning oil from beaches

There are fears the 236-metre Rena could break apart if it takes another battering in the heavy swells.

"The ship remains in a similar condition to what it was yesterday [Monday] - with cracks down each side but is still held together through its internal structure," said MNZ Salvage Unit Manager Andrew Berry.

MNZ described "a light sheen of oil" leaking from the bow of the Rena on Tuesday morning, moving out to sea pushed by the prevailing wind.

New Zealand's MetService said a more settled spell of weather was expected from Wednesday, which would allow the salvage crews to return to the ship and resume pumping oil.

Once that operation is completed, the approximately 1,300 containers can be removed and the ship moved off the reef it is stuck on.

'Virtually clear'

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.

Environmentalists have warned of disaster if all 1,700 tonnes of oil and 200 tonnes of diesel originally held on board spill from the vessel.

About 350 tonnes of oil has already leaked from the ship, some of it landing on local beaches.

MNZ says 88 containers from the ship have fallen overboard. Some have washed ashore or scattered their contents along the coast.

About 1,250 sea birds have died in the spill. Hundreds of other oil-coated birds have been taken to a wildlife centre to be cleaned.

The region, the Bay of Plenty, is popular for its long, sandy beaches and abundant wildlife, including rare sea birds, penguins and dolphins.

The official co-ordinating the hundreds of volunteers cleaning the beaches said the operation had been called off on Tuesday morning due to the bad weather and the beaches being already "virtually clear of oil".

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

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

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