Sunday, November 9, 2014

Wreck of Container Ship Offends Both Environmentally and Culturally

Council Recommends Vessel Now Rests Where She Lies
Shipping News Feature

NEW ZEALAND – The Bay of Plenty Regional Council has released its report on an application to leave the remains of the ill-fated container vessel, the Liberian flagged MV Rena wreck in place on Otaiti/Astrolabe Reef, concluding that while full removal of the ship and her contents from the Reef was ‘technically possible’, it was not feasible given the high health and safety risks associated with full removal, thereby recommending that the application to leave the vessel in its current state should be granted.

Since grounding on the reef approximately 12 nautical miles off the coast of Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, on October 5, 2011, salvage work of the box vessel has been carried out continuously, with an initial focus on collecting oil, contaminants and the recovery of containers, eight of which contained hazardous cargo, and which has latterly switched primarily to debris field removal from the reef itself. The ship ran aground with over 1,650 tonnes of fuel oil plus a cargo of around 1,368 containers, any one of which could in a semi submerged state be the cause of another maritime accident whilst a variety of cargoes seeped out. Since the ship foundered the event has been described as ‘New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster’.

During storms and high seas in January 2012 and in the aftermath of Cyclone Lusi in March 2014, the wreck split, shifted, and the aft section has now slipped further down the Reef into deeper water to rest at a depth of 56 metres below the lowest astronomical tide mark (LAT). Prior to the March 2014 event, salvage teams had partially removed the upper level of the vessel’s accommodation block leaving the highest part of the aft section approximately -24 metres LAT after the March 2014 movement.

The report notes that any operation of a full wreck removal will never take the Reef back to its Pre-Rena state as it would not be technically possible to recover every last piece of the wreck down to the last degree of contamination in the sediments. Regional Council Chief Executive Mary-Anne Macleod said:

“The report concludes that the damage already caused by the grounding, coupled with the difficulty and high health and safety risks of full wreck removal essentially restricts the options available. The Council’s report recommends that, provided key issues can be adequately addressed through the consent process, including consideration of cultural concerns, the Application should be granted. The Council has also recommended a number of conditions for the Environment Court to consider if the consent is granted.

“There will likely be extensive further damage to the structure and ecology of the reef from on-going salvage, and further discharge of contaminants [if the Rena was removed]. These issues will be discussed at a future Council meeting. Some key concerns with the Proposal need to be further considered through the consent process. These include potential long-term adverse effects of copper on the local environment and the reef ecology, potential cumulative effects of any future discharges and cultural effects.”

The possibility of letting the ship rest as and where she currently lies, has engendered spirited objections from many beyond the normal range of environmental protectionist groups. The Otaiti/Astrolabe Reef is a site of considerable cultural significance to the Māori people lying adjacent to Motiti Island where Ngātoro-i-rangi, one of the most important figures in the native religion spent most of his last years and where many maritime battles were traditionally fought. A report in June 2013 went in some depth into the history and importance of the site to local residents. Many Māori believe that the reef should be completely cleansed of all traces of the wrecked vessel or the site will be ‘spoilt’.

Photo: Courtesy Maritime New Zealand