M V Rena Oil Spill – Lack Of Leadership Evident. Ferrosilicon, Oil Concerns

The Liberian flagged Rena

Days after the grounding of the Liberian flagged MV Rena in the early hours of 5 October, Prime Minister Key has finally found time in his busy World Cup schedule to visit Tauranga and see the extent of the damage caused by the oil leaking from the vessel. Already 100 tonnes of oil from the ship are thought to be unaccounted for. (watch projected oil spill video here)

The handling of the impending environmental disaster has been anything but 100% efficient and it has raised grave concerns about the government’s ability to deal with a future oil spillage off the NZ coast, something that strikes fear into the heart of the many businesses that rely on the sea for their livelihoods, environmental groups and local residents.

With oil exploration off the coast of New Zealand getting gathering pace and an Australian company’s well drilled  in the Marlborough Sounds it raises fresh doubts about the country’s ability to deal with a major oil spillage, such as that of the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras International Braspetro B.V was recently given a 5 year permit to drill for oil on 12,333 square kilometres off the North Island’s East Cape. Water depths range from shallow to 3000m at its northern reaches. By comparison BP’s leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico is in water 1500m deep.

Blogger, The Jackalman, has uncovered some disturbing information when he became concerned about the lack of  disclosure about who owns the MV Rena and found alleged ties to the Israeli military. He also was concerned at National ‘s slow response and wondered why they’d been slow to react.

In addition to mentions of plutonium cores and parts for military helicopters he writes that there was evidence of a lack of maintenance of the vessel and NZ authorities not being allowed on board to breath-test Filipino crew members.

ferrosilicon ore, image from wikipedia

Worryingly he lists Ferrosilicon, (above, used by the military to produce highly flammable hydrogen) among the hazardous substances carried in the cargo (there are 4 containers of it aboard) and the effects if it comes into contact with water.  He also questions whether Yellow Cake, mined in Australia may be among the cargo and why National has not released the ship’s inventory.

The Jackalman writes:

In August this year, Australia detained the MV Rena because of cracked and rusted parts. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority after “serious deficiencies” were found detained the vessel for a day in Fremantle, Western Australia. The authority’s report found the vessel had “not been maintained between surveys”, the “hatchway cover securing arrangements are defective” and cargo was not stowed and secured as stipulated in the cargo-securing manual.

Despite the Rena being beached in New Zealand’s territorial waters, authorities were not allowed to board the vessel to breath test the crew to ensure drunkenness was not a reason for the accident.

The hazardous substance that authorities have confirmed is being transported by the Rena is Ferrosilicon, which is used by the military to quickly produce hydrogen. The chemical reaction uses sodium hydroxide, ferrosilicon, and water. The materials are stable and not combustible, and they do not generate large amounts of hydrogen until mixed. Ferrosilicon will slowly release hydrogen when in contact with water.

As early as Friday 7 October politician Winston Peters was already voicing strong concern about the perceived inertia of the response. With heavy seas predicted there is an ever increasing risk that the vessel will break-up releasing a potentially hazardous cargo into the sea :

More than 72 hours after the grounding of the M V Rena, with over 1500 tons of oil on board, at the Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga the lack of urgency and inertia demonstrated by the Government is to be deplored’, says Winston Peters, Leader of NZ First.

‘Sitting around waiting for some overseas expert to arrive is surely not the answer. Shippers have for years being paying a fee to cover such an event. Now that it is here the public should be demanding to know, where is Prime Minister Key, Transport Minister Joyce or Environmental Minister Smith. This is not a disaster waiting to happen. It has happened and failure to have already acted with the speed this event requires could have dire prospects for the Coromandel, Bay of Plenty and East Coast.’

‘Any dramatic worsening of sea conditions could spell further or total loss of the oil at sea and a breakup of the ship. The real issue is why hasn’t our training and preparation for such an event been met with a sense serious danger and appropriate response? Running around talking about good news and grabbing photo opportunities should be suspended and this issue dealt with now.

‘The oil should be taken off the boat now as should any dangerous cargo. That is not what is happening.’

‘Moreover the dispersal agent being used is likely to be as dangerous as the oil itself because its characteristics are to take the oil to the sea floor where it’s danger to the marine ecology will have tragic effects.

‘The economy of the Bay of Plenty is already under threat from Psa in the Kiwi Fruit industry. The danger is imminent from this shipping disaster and it calls for action and leadership. Where is it?’ said Mr Peters.

Experts  warning “environmental disaster” looming, lack of readiness.

Environmental Defence Society (EDS) chairman, Gary Taylor, said on 7 October maritime authorities were moving too slowly to contain the oil spill. He also said that experimental spraying of dispersal chemicals wasn’t working and that there was a lack of readiness on the part of authorities to deal with an oil spill off the coast of New Zealand.

The Environmental Defence Society has called on Maritime New Zealand to act faster to contain oil spilling from the container ship Rena off Tauranga Harbour.

“We are very concerned to see this incident inexorably moving into a full-scale environmental disaster,” said EDS Chairman Gary Taylor.

“The area is one that has high natural values with many seabirds, marine mammals and fish at risk from contamination. Nearby beaches and communities are at risk.
“It is now three days since the container ship became stranded on the Astrolabe Reef and there is still no containment boom around the ship to prevent oil dispersing into the wider marine environment. The sea is calm at present and we see no reason why containment should not already be in place. We understand suitable equipment is available.
“We are not convinced by what we have seen so far that Maritime New Zealand has the situation under control.

“This impression is reinforced by the way they are experimenting with helicopter spraying of dispersal chemicals only to find they are not working. This is redolent of the Gulf of Mexico distaster where authorities were found wanting of tried and proven response techniques.

“We would have thought that there would be a rapid, effective and proven response to this kind of incident and instead are seeing unexplained delays and trialling of different methods of control. This indicates a general lack of readiness on the part of the relevant authorities to deal with an oil spill off the New Zealand coast.”

“We agree with the Green Party that this is not a good look when we consider the imminent prospect of oil exploration off the same east coast of the North Island. If this is an indication of our readiness then there is a lot of work to be done. How the ship got onto to the reef and accountability for that is one thing. The response from Maritime New Zealand and its performance in responding to the situation is another.”

“We are looking for rapid deployment of containment booms, removal of the oil from the ship and over a longer time-frame removal of containers that pose a threat to the environment,” Mr Taylor concluded. source

Today the EDS issued another press release questioning Maritime New Zealand’s readiness to deal with such incidents and that the situation was worsening with each passing day

Environmental Defence Society questions Maritime NZ tardiness
The Environmental Defence Society , which earlier this week called for a faster response to the Rena incident, is now questioning the readiness of Maritime New Zealand to deal with such incidents.

“There is no doubt now that this is a very serious situation, made worse by the passing of every day,” said EDS Chairman Gary Taylor.

“So we need to ask why Maritime New Zealand has been so slow out of the blocks when it should have contingency plans in place that are ready to go the moment an incident occurs.
“No attempts have been made to contain the oil with booms, there seems to be an experiment with dispersal agents, all the equipment required is not available in New Zealand and is being brought from overseas, expertise also seems not available here and is being brought in and no containers have yet been removed.

“And all this with worsening weather imminent. Winds are shifting on-shore and strengthening with heavier swells likely to increase the probability of stressing a vulnerable hull and the ship breaking up.

“It is extremely disconcerting to see how delays at every turn are increasing the risks. We would have thought that clear plans would be in place to deal with all conceivable incidents and that their deployment would be rapid and certain. “Whilst the focus at the moment must be on containing the scale of this unfolding disaster, an inquiry into the way it has been handled is inevitable.

“As New Zealand moves more aggressively into offshore oil exploration, New Zealanders will want to know that is something goes wrong we are ready to deal with it competently and swiftly. We also have large numbers of oil tankers, with much more oil on board than a coastal container ship, plying our waters on a regular basis. They have the potential for a much greater disaster.

“This should be a real wake-up call for all of us and we should learn as much as we can from it so as to better manage any future spills. “New Zealand has more than 14,000km of coastline and some of the most important and biodiverse oceans in the world. We need world-class environmental standards and international best practice in oil spill management available at a moments notice.

“ What we are seeing is not good enough,” Mr Taylor concluded.

With cracks are already appearing in the ships hull the continuing dangers of the MV Rena will be as nothing compared to the major ecological disaster caused by a leaking oil well off the NZ coast.

If the government can’t sort out a single cargo ship what hope does it stand of coping with the cracks in its disaster management response when a major oil pollution incident presents itself.

You may also be interested in these related blogs

100% Pure NZ Oil Well To Be Sunk Near Marlborough Sounds (July 2010)

Mass Penguin Deaths Blamed On East Coast Oil Exploration (May 2011)

and our Green Credentials, Or Green Wash information page