Ship spill could cause major damage to Bay of Plenty

New Zealand is facing its "worst maritime disaster" after a ship ran aground in the wildlife-rich Bay of Plenty.

Questions are being asked at government level after the Liberian-registered ship, the Rena, ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef in the Bay at night and in calm waters.  The vessel was carrying more than 1,600 tonnes of fuel and heavy oil as well containers, some of which contain 'hazardous goods'.

Although only a relatively small amount of oil had leaked from the ship in the first few days after the accident, the local wildlife - particularly seabirds and blue penguins - was already being affected by the resulting slick.

However, weather conditions deteriorated, rupturing one of the ship's main fuel tanks, with the resulting leak sending between 130 and 350 tonnes of heavy oil into the Bay.  Salvage experts are concerned that the ship may break up before it can be removed from the reef.

The weather also hampered attempts to remove the oil from the ship, owned by Greek-based Costamare Inc., with one oil relief vessel being damaged itself in the process.  The New Zealand government has now declared the incident as the country's worst ever maritime environmental disaster.

How the accident happened is yet to be established with the authorities focusing on the clean-up as their first priority.