New Zealand Copes with an Ongoing Oil Spill

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Soldiers clean up oil spilled in New Zealand. Credit: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images

You can’t get much more remote than New Zealand—Auckland is over 1,000 miles away from Sydney, which is itself pretty far down there. But doesn’t mean New Zealand is exempt from modern environmental ills. Earlier this month the Liberian-flagged cargo ship Rena ran aground on a reef off New Zealand’s north island, spilling tons of heavy oil that have already washed ashore. About 350 tons of oil have already spilled from the ship, killing more than 1,000 sea birds. Nick Smith, New Zealand’s environment minister, has called the spill the nation’s “most significant environmental maritime disaster.”

And it could get worse—rough weather has made it difficult for crews to offload oil and cargo on the ship, meaning crude is still spilling into the ocean. An additional 1,400 tons of heavy fuel oil remains onboard the Rena, and there may be no way to clear the ship before it’s too late, as the Los Angeles Times reported:

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.”

The Rena spill won’t go down with the Exxon Valdez in the annals of major oil accidents, but New Zealand—a country that prides itself on the purity of its environment—will likely feel the effects for years. And the accident is a reminder that it takes just one mistake—or one bad patch of weather—to cause a maritime catastrophe.