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Crews struggle to drain oil-leaking ship off New Zealand

Image: Oil leaking from stricken ship off New Zealand
Salvage teams renew efforts to get hundreds of tons of heavy fuel oil off stricken cargo ship Rena that is stuck precariously on a New Zealand reef, with the goal of keeping the country's worst maritime disaster from degenerating even more. Jean Francois Fournier / EPA
/ Source: news services

The calmest weather in days has given salvage crews hope they will be able on Friday to resume pumping the remaining fuel from a cargo ship stuck on a New Zealand reef.

The ship Rena has already spilled hundreds of tons of oil and crews are in a race against nature to try and remove the remaining fuel before waves break up the vessel, which has begun to crack apart and is leaning on a 22-degree tilt.

Liberian-flagged Rena has been stuck for nine days on a reef 14 miles off the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, spilling about 300 tons of heavy toxic fuel and some of its hundreds of containers into the sea.

Authorities say the 775-foot ship was in a precarious position, as salvage teams prepared to cut holes in the stern to get to the tanks holding more than 1,000 tons of fuel.

"What's holding the vessel together at the moment is the fact she's lying on the reef and some internal structures, companionways, ducting and the like inside the vessel," Maritime NZ spokesman Andrew Berry told a meeting of local residents.

The salvage teams are working to install equipment and platforms on the high side of the aft section of the listing 47,230-ton ship so they have a level surface to work on.

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

"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," said Matthew Watson of the Svitzer salvage company.

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

Oil has washed up along about 37 miles of the coast, which is popular with surfers and fishermen.

Last week crews removed about 10 tons of oil before the weather forced them to postpone salvage attempts.

'Relatively positive'
Nick Bohm, a spokesman for Maritime New Zealand which is managing the emergency response, told The Associated Press Friday that crews are "relatively positive" they can proceed with plans to board the vessel and begin pumping oil to a nearby barge. He said pumping should begin Friday afternoon in an operation that could last several days.

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

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

Bohm said the stronger winds forecast for the weekend may hamper the operation.

An estimated 1,000 white-suited workers, including soldiers, wildlife experts and residents, were on the beaches scraping and collecting clumps of the foul-smelling fuel oil cargo wreckage from the ship.

More than 220 tons of waste, including oil and debris from the ship, have been cleared from the beaches.

Residents said the beaches were looking cleaner as the winds were now blowing oil out to sea allowing clean-up teams to make progress.

"It's much better than it has been, not that much oil is coming (on shore) and we seem to be getting on top of it," said resident Liz Bridgeman.

Authorities said more than 3,000 people had volunteered to help clean up the coast and teams were being trained to go where needed.

Crack runs around vesselA 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.

"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.

Bohm said the container with hazardous material that fell overboard 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 this week, 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.

Costamare released a statement this week 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."

But the mayor of Tauranga dismissed an apology from the ship's owners.

"It's half an apology and a lot of excuse, no it's not good enough, I'd like to see the ship's owner come to Tauranga and stand up in front of our people," Stuart Crosby said on TVNZ.