New Zealand oil spill: Rena's oiled animals set for release

Jamie Morton NZ Herald 15 Nov 11;

Feathered refugees from the Rena crisis could begin winging their way home this week, as wildlife experts count the cost of a disaster that has wiped out a generation of penguins and killed up to 20,000 birds.

The oiled wildlife centre at Mt Maunganui has swelled from a few shipping containers to a tented village during the crisis, but the emptying of all but the dregs of the Rena's load of heavy fuel oil means the camp should be mostly dismantled by the new year.

It is hoped five shags - among the first birds to be rescued after the Rena ran aground on Astrolabe Reef on October 5 - will be released to a colony near Mt Maunganui by the end of the week.

Centre manager Dr Brett Gartrell said some of the 340 little blue penguins in captivity could also be homeward bound by the weekend.

Penguins being readied for a return to the wild were being put through their paces in swimming pools yesterday - their test being to swim for six straight hours.

"If they can do that, then we figure they're ready to go," Dr Gartrell said.

Wildlife experts also had to ensure the birds' bodyweight and protein levels were adequate and that their coats, weakened by oil, could properly resist water again. Readjusting from a lifestyle of regular fish smoothies and round-the-clock care would be a shock "but the good thing about little blue penguins is that as soon they see the ocean, they'll be off - and they won't be looking back".

The shags, penned in pools covered by netting, had been preening for weeks. "You can see them flapping their wings and they're very much good to go."

Dr Gartrell hoped that by the end of the month all 406 birds would be back in their natural habitats.

The last birds to be released were likely to be the few penguins brought in over recent days and the 60 endangered New Zealand dotterels, which could be disturbed by ongoing beach clean-ups.

Dr Gartrell said the first release would be an emotional moment.

"It really will be a turning point in the whole process that we'd all love to see.

"We weren't able to think about releasing any birds until all of the oil is off and it's a huge relief that we now can."

Wildlife experts were expected to stay for six more weeks at the base, which could be re-established to cope with another major event.

"We'll have some sort of presence here as long as the ship is on the reef."

The wildlife death toll remained unknown, Dr Gartrell said, but the number could pass 20,000.

That included a generation of unborn penguin chicks sacrificed to save their parents and a large number of little diving petrels.

"We had 800 of those birds through the post-mortem tent and of the five that came in alive, none of them made it through the wash tents.

"They're deep ocean birds, so most ofthose that died would have most likely drowned before they could reach the shore to get help.

"It's certainly been a major environmental disaster for New Zealand and it's certainly had an impact on seabird life here in the Bay of Plenty - it will take time to see just how big that will be."

Meanwhile, the crane barge Sea Tow 60 has moored alongside the Rena before the next phase of the salvage operation - removing the 1280 containers. Another, larger crane barge, Smit Borneo, is on its way from Singapore to assist.

"Each set of containers will present its own unique challenges," Maritime New Zealand salvage unit manager Arthur Jobard said.

"This means it is impossible to predict exactly how long it will take to safely remove all of the containers - but realistically, it is likely to take several months of patient work."

He said the Rena's fragile state meant it could break up before all containers were offloaded.

The outlook

* Seven months - the time it could take to offload the Rena's containers.
* Six weeks - the time the oiled wildlife centre is expected to remain in operation.
* Six months - the period the Government has to decide whether it will prosecute the Rena's owners.
* One year - the timeframe of a long-term environmental recovery plan.
* Several years - the expected timeframe of ongoing environmental monitoring.
* Unknown - the time it will take to mop up oil remnants still on board the Rena and on beaches.

New Zealand crews to remove containers from grounded cargo ship
Salvors to begin complex job after teams manage to remove all but a few traces of oil from Liberian-flagged Rena
Peter Walker 14 Nov 11;

Salvage crews are preparing to remove containers from a cargo ship that ran aground on a New Zealand reef nearly six weeks ago after pumping all remaining oil from the vessel and averting an environmental disaster.

Government ministers and local politicians hailed the work of the teams after they managed to remove all but a few traces of oil from the Liberian-flagged Rena, which ran aground off Tauranga, in North Island's Bay of Plenty, in heavy seas on 5 October.

In the following days, several hundred tonnes of oil spilt into the sea after a fuel tank ruptured, washing onto beaches and affecting birds and other wildlife. There were fears that the badly damaged 47,000-tonne vessel could completely break apart, spilling a further 1,600 tonnes of fuel and causing an environmental catastrophe.

But the Rena stayed intact as salvage workers spent weeks pumping the heavy fuel oil from its tanks to an adjoining tanker, and this process was almost complete, Maritime New Zealand said on Monday.

The next stage of the operation would involve a crane barge being put into position to begin the tricky job of removing cargo containers from the ship.

An accompanying shoreline cleanup has been sufficiently successful for local beaches to be expected to reopen later in the week.

The country's prime minister, John Key, said the operation had been "very, very successful", the New Zealand Herald reported. "I think the people of Tauranga will be very happy they haven't had the environmental disaster that some predicted," Key added.

The local mayor, Stuart Crosby said: "The salvors have done an amazing job under treacherous conditions to avoid an environmental disaster. I guess we've all gone through a series of emotions that we all do in this type of event. There has been disbelief, frustration, anger, and now relief – relief that the oil has been taken away by these great people."

However, the operation to remove the containers remains long and risky, Maritime New Zealand said. It is likely to take several months, during which time the Rena could still break up.

"The salvors are taking this time to make sure that all the equipment and systems are ready and working properly before commencing operations. They also need good, calm weather to operate effectively, with safety being the top priority," the salvage unit head, Arthur Jobard, said.

"Once the testing has been successfully completed, the salvors will be lowering men down in a cage to ready the containers for removal.

"However, as we have seen with this entire operation so far, the speed at which the salvage team can work depends on many different factors. This includes weather and how complex it proves to be to access the containers, many of which are badly damaged and in very precarious positions."

He said this meant it would be "impossible to predict exactly how long it will take to safely remove all of the containers on board – but realistically, it is likely to take several months of patient and careful work".