Was New Zealand prepared for its worst oil spill?

New Zealand's delayed response to its oil spill emergency, described as the worst in the country's history, has been compared with last year’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
People, right top, stand on the Papamoa Beach dirtied by oil spilled from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena which has been stuck aground on a reef off the coast of Tauranga, New Zealand, Wednesday.
Maritime New Zealand/AP
A large crack from the deck to the waterline has emerged on the cargo ship Rena that has been foundering since it ran aground Oct. 5 on the Astrolabe Reef, about 14 miles from Tauranga Harbour, New Zealand, on Wednesday.

The government of New Zealand has declared a state of environmental emergency following the discovery of a massive oil leak after a ship ran aground last week on a reef north of the country.

A cargo ship, Rena, struck Astrolabe Reef a week ago, leaking an estimated 350 tons of heavy fuel oil from its ruptured hull into the Bay of the Plenty, home to one of New Zealand’s busiest ports in nearby Tauranga (see map). The remaining 1,400 tons of fuel still on board Wednesday also appeared destined to spew into the ocean.

The four-day delay in responding to the still unfolding emergency, described as the worst maritime environmental disaster in the country's history, has raised questions about New Zealand's preparedness.

“What concerns me is that here we are in New Zealand, fully aware that there have been umpteen oil spills around the world and the fact that other countries have these amazing rapid responses in place, but not here,” says Barbara Bollard Breen, head of postgraduate studies in applied sciences at Auckland University of Technology. The country’s lack of any discernible plan was “simply crazy,” she says.

Ms. Bollard Breen, who has long taken her students through possible scenarios in which a spillage similar to Deepwater Horizon disaster occurs off the New Zealand coastline, said her dismay at seeing the hypothesis become a reality was matched by her surprise at the official delay.

In local science labs, possible strategies for such an occurrence have been available for at least the past five years, in a frequently studied paper (pdf). Nevertheless, Bollard Breen says, it has been left to gather dust on the academic shelf.

The disaster threatens both the marine life of this South Pacific nation along with its carefully cultivated image as an environmental idyll – until the otherwise calm day when Rena unexpectedly encountered trouble.

As hundreds of volunteers fanned out across oil-coated beaches to begin clean up efforts, Environment Minister Nick Smith said the government would pursue the owners of the Filipino ship for the costs of a cleanup.

The boat’s captain and a second officer, both of whose identities have been withheld, were arrested this week and charged with “operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk.”

But the National Party-led government of Prime Minister John Key looks set to face its own toxic reckoning over preparedness for the disaster, which has already drawn predictable comparisons with last year’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

The country is just seven weeks away from a Nov. 26 general election. Opinion surveys had Mr. Key’s conservative administration poised for a comfortable win.

But the comparative news has not been entirely nightmarish: The entire land-mass of New Zealand would fit several times over into the Gulf of Mexico, and even the worst-case scenario has the current calamity affecting only a relatively small portion of its coastline.

Nor are the figures from each event seriously comparable, with the Gulf spillage, which at its worst saw an estimated 1,470,000 gallons of oil pour into the sea each day.

For the moment at least, Key told reporters this week, the government insists it has continued to act on “the best advice we've had from the best experts in the world … we are moving as quickly as we could have done.” And so, too, is New Zealand’s once and future oil slick.

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