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Crews weigh pumping fuel from battered ship off New Zealand

The Liberian-flagged container ship Rena is seen Thursday stuck aground on a reef off the coast of Tauranga, New Zealand.
The Liberian-flagged container ship Rena is seen Thursday stuck aground on a reef off the coast of Tauranga, New Zealand.Natacha Pisarenko / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A cargo ship that has already spilled hundreds of tons of oil stayed perched on a New Zealand reef Friday morning while salvage crews debated whether the remaining fuel can be pumped from the vessel before it breaks up.

Environmentalists have warned of a disaster for wildlife if all the ship's 1,870 tons of oil and 220 tons of diesel spill into the ocean.

Rescue crews have to stabilize the ship that is slowly being battered to pieces by pounding waves before any transfer of oil can start — but its severe structural damage is making the task harder.

Meanwhile, 20 of the 88 containers that have fallen off its deck had washed ashore by Thursday, and authorities confirmed one container that toppled overboard contained a hazardous substance. However, an official said it should not pose a major threat.

Salvage company Svitzer identified 35 containers in the water and recovered 14, One News television in New Zealand reported.

About 1,000 people targeting the Papamoa and Mount areas were expected to collect oil from beaches, the network said. About 37 miles of coastline were coated.

Heavy seas had kept salvage crews away from the 775-foot vessel for days, but a break in the weather allowed three team members to be winched aboard the Liberian-flagged Rena, which ran aground Oct. 5 on Astrolabe Reef, 14 miles from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand's North Island.

Ewart Barnsley, spokesman for Maritime New Zealand which is managing the emergency response, said the salvage crew found oil hoses and pumps for transferring fuel largely undamaged aboard the ship. They also concluded that the ship was safe to work from.

Barnsley said a barge was moored nearby to receive oil, but a decision on when that transfer might start would not be made before Friday.

Marine New Zealand salvage manager Bruce Anderson said the vessel needed to stop moving before the oil could be pumped out and it apparently had.

"While this is good news, we shouldn't get too excited," Anderson told reporters. "We already had a complex project to start with; it's even harder now that we've sustained damage aboard this vessel," he said, referring to recent structural cracking.

A vertical crack in the ship runs around the entire vessel — meaning the ship is now only held together by its internal components, said Steve Jones, another spokesman for Maritime New Zealand.

Waves wash the Papamoa Beach dirtied with fuel oil from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena which has been stuck aground on a reef off the coast of Tauranga, New Zealand, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. A salvage crew on Thursday finally managed to board the cargo ship that has spilled hundreds of tons of oil since striking a reef off New Zealand, and was racing to assess whether oil can be pumped from the ship before the vessel breaks up. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)Natacha Pisarenko / AP

"The reality is the vessel could break up at any point," Jones told The Associated Press.

Six vessels have been mobilized to intercept the drifting containers and other debris in the water.

There were 1,368 containers on board, 11 of which contained hazardous substances, Maritime New Zealand said. One of the hazardous containers is among those that have fallen overboard, Jones said.

Agency spokesman Nick Bohm said the container held alkyl sulfonic acid, which can be harmful in its original state, but becomes less toxic when diluted with water. The whereabouts of that container are unknown.

Some of the contents of containers that had washed ashore were strewn across the coastline on Thursday, including thousands of meat patties that littered the sand.

The ship's 44-year-old Filipino captain was charged Wednesday with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk and was released on bail Wednesday at Tauranga District Court.

The ship's second officer appeared in the same court Thursday on the same charge. Judge Robert Wolff made orders suppressing publication of the defendants' names for the sake of their personal safety.

If convicted, each could face a fine of up to 10,000 New Zealand dollars ($7,800) and 12 months in prison. Their next court appearance is Oct. 19, when authorities say more charges are likely.

The government has demanded to know why the ship crashed into the well-charted reef in calm weather, but the vessel's owner, Greece-based Costamare Inc., has given no explanation.

On Thursday, Costamare released a statement apologizing for the incident and said it was investigating how the ship could have run aground.

"Our Captain is an experienced Master and has an exemplary record," Costamare managing director Diamantis Manos said in the statement. "The ship was fully certified and had recently been inspected ... They found no problems. Obviously something went very wrong and we will cooperate with the Transport Accident Investigation Commission of New Zealand (TAIC) to find the answer."

Maritime New Zealand estimates that at least 390 tons (350 metric tons) of heavy fuel oil have spilled from the hull, leading New Zealand's environment minister, Nick Smith, to call it the country's biggest maritime environmental disaster.

Clumps of oil have washed up on pristine beaches near Tauranga. Maritime New Zealand said hundreds of oiled birds had been found dead and 51 others were being cleaned at a wildlife emergency center. Three seals were also being treated.

Several miles (kilometers) of coastline have been closed to the public, and some beaches were beginning to experience severe oiling, Jones said.

"I was down there this morning," Jones said. "It was just black coming in — just black, black, black."

Witnesses said dead fish were also washing ashore as local volunteers with plastic gloves and buckets worked to clean the oily clots from the white sand.