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New Zealand oil spill worsens; stricken cargo ship may sink

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REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- New Zealand’s worst-ever environmental sea accident teetered on the brink of further mayhem Monday as a stricken cargo ship threatened to break apart and become dislodged from the reef it rammed earlier this month.

Salvage crews rushed to pump more oil from the ailing Liberia-flagged Rena, which ran aground Oct. 5 on a reef 14 miles offshore, spilling tons of heavy oil that has washed up on pristine beaches near the town of Tauranga on New Zealand’s North Island.

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Photo gallery: Cargo vessel grounded off New Zealand

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

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, now fear the Rena will slip from its precarious mooring and sink. The bow of the ship remains stuck on the reef while the stern swings free.

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

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

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.

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-- John M. Glionna


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