An oil spill from a stranded cargo ship off New Zealand has become the country’s worst maritime environmental disaster, the government has said.
Officials say 300 tonnes of oil may have leaked from the 775ft (236m) Rena, which ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef off the port of Tauranga on Wednesday.
Bad weather which has halted work to pump oil off the ship is set to worsen.
Environment Minister Nick Smith said the situation was going to get “significantly worse” in coming days.
“This event has come to a stage where it is New Zealand’s most significant maritime environmental disaster,” he told a news briefing in Tauranga.
“It is my view that the tragic events we are seeing unfolding were absolutely inevitable from the point that the Rena ran onto the reef in the early hours of Wednesday morning,” he said.
“The government is determined to throw everything possible at minimising the environmental harm of what is now clear to be New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster in many decades.”
Mr Smith said the rate at which oil was gushing out of the ship had increased “fivefold” since it ran aground.
‘Main tank breached’
Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) told the BBC that by Tuesday evening between 200 and 300 tonnes had leaked from the main tank of the stricken vessel.
The oil is moving south-west towards Mt Maunganui, next to Tauranga on North Island, an MNZ spokesman told the New Zealand Herald.
“One of the main tanks has been breached. It is very significant in the scheme of things,” the spokesman said.
MNZ said the ship was intact but listing at 18 degrees but that the there has been no change to its structural integrity. Weather conditions are expected to deteriorate over the next 24-48 hours.
There have been fears the ship might break up in bad weather, leaking all 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board and shedding its cargo.
A navigational warning has been issued in case containers do fall into the sea.
MNZ said one Navy officer was taken to hospital on Tuesday morning after being injured as the remaining crew were being evacuated from the Rena.
Clumps of heavy oil have already been washing up on the beaches of Mt Maunganui and the nearby community of Papamoa and are expected to reach Tauranga port and beaches south to Maketu.
MNZ head Catherine Taylor said containing the oil would be difficult, given the Rena’s position on a reef and the weather battering the region.
Swells of up to 4m are making the use of oil dispersants difficult.
Ms Taylor told the BBC it would take several weeks to clean up the shoreline.
The Awanuia tanker, which had been offloading the oil, had to return to port for minor repairs on Monday.
Once the weather has calmed, it will resume transferring the oil off the ship, the containers will be removed and then the Rena can be moved off the reef.
Officials have closed affected beaches and residents close to vulnerable coastlines have been told to stay away from the shore and not touch the heavy globs of oil.
“Although it looks bad, the oil in its clumped state is at no risk of going anywhere, and people attempting to remove it without the proper training or equipment risk making the situation worse,” said MNZ.
About 200 people are involved in the salvage operation, while 300 military personnel are on stand-by to clean up beaches.
“People are angry that this could have happened on our doorstep and it could really ruin one of the best beaches around,” one local man, Jim Kohu, told Reuters.
The area’s long, sandy beaches are popular with tourists and surfers. Conservationists have warned the oil spill poses a huge threat to the region’s abundant wildlife.