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New Zealand fears oil spill from ship may worsen

Crews halt attempts to pump oil from the Rena as bad weather hampers efforts. Authorities fear the ship, which still carries about 1,400 tons of heavy oil, will sink. Already 1,300 seabirds have died.

October 17, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • More containers threaten to tumble off the Rena, which ran aground on a reef about 14 miles off New Zealand's North Island a few days ago and began spilling oil. A worse spill is feared if the ship breaks up.
More containers threaten to tumble off the Rena, which ran aground on a reef… (Alan Gibson, Associated…)

Reporting from Seoul — A stricken cargo ship carrying tons of oil threatened to break apart off the coast of New Zealand late Monday and dislodge from the reef it rammed this month.

Salvage crews halted attempts to pump oil from the Liberian-flagged Rena as weather in the area worsened. The ship, which ran aground Oct. 5 on a reef 14 miles offshore, has spilled tons of heavy oil that has washed up on pristine beaches near the town of Tauranga on New Zealand's North Island.

But rough seas have stymied salvage efforts: An estimated 85 to 100 tons of oil has been removed from the listing ship, while 1,400 additional tons of fuel remains aboard. About 350 tons of oil has leaked into the sea, causing havoc for citizens along beaches and killing nearly 1,300 seabirds.

PHOTOS: Stricken cargo ship

The weather was expected to worsen late Monday, and authorities, citing several serious stress cracks in the vessel's hull, including one that runs the width of the ship, feared the Rena would slip from its precarious mooring and sink. The bow of the ship remained stuck on the reef while the stern was free.

Steven Joyce, New Zealand's transportation minister, said there was little chance that workers could remove all the oil before the vessel broke loose.

"I think it's a case of getting everything off that you can," he said, adding that the ship's lean had reached a critical 21 degrees, already causing more than 70 containers to fall overboard. "So it's variable and very dangerous."

New Zealand's environment minister, Nick Smith, has called the spill the nation's "most significant environmental maritime disaster."

Both the captain and an officer of the ship, owned by Greece-based Costamare Inc., have been charged under New Zealand maritime law with operating a ship in a dangerous manner, which could bring them each a year in jail.

Investigators are interviewing the crew to determine why the 775-foot vessel crashed onto the well-charted Astrolabe Reef in calm weather. Costamare officials have said in a statement that they were "cooperating fully with local authorities," but did not offer any explanation for the grounding.

PHOTOS: Stricken cargo ship

john.glionna@latimes.com

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