Oil Tanker Leak Becomes New Zealand's 'Most Significant Environmental Maritime Disaster'

An oil tanker accident off the coast of New Zealand has caused what some describe as the country's largest oil spill disaster. 

The Rena, a Liberian-flagged oil tanker, began to leak oil on Oct. 5 after it ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef. Since then, the ship has leaked at least 390 tons of oil into New Zealand's Bay of Plenty. Heavy seas have threatened to further destroy the ship, which could send more oil into the sea. 

Environment Minister Nick Smith told the Associated Press the damage was unprecedented, calling it the "worst environmental disaster in many decades."

"This event has come to a scale where it is New Zealand's most significant environmental maritime disaster," he said, adding that cleanup would take weeks. 

It was reported that the incident occurred during a period of calm seas. The owner of the ship, Greece-based Costamare Inc., has not offered any explanation for the accident but maintains it is "cooperating fully with local authorities." 

The BBC spoke with local resident Dave Tee regarding the state of the nearby environment. He called it a distressing sight. 

"I live just across the road from the stretch of coast where the cargo ship hit the reef," he said. "I went down to the beach twice on Tuesday to help with the clean-up and to take pictures. The sight of the beach is quite heartbreaking. There are parts that are really bad."

Although the public was warned against any informal cleanup actions, many scoured the nearby beaches to collect tar balls that had accumulated by the seaside. The beaches have since been officially closed to the public. 

So far, the Associated Press reports 53 birds have been found dead. 

Extraction crews began to syphon heavy fuel oil from the ship on Sunday, however they abandoned efforts on Monday due to severe weather conditions. They had only removed 11 of the 1,900 tons of oil on board the ship.