Rescuers race to halt oil spill before the storm

The first oil from a wrecked container ship has washed up on the New Zealand coastline. Not for the first time, natural beauty is threatened by humanity's thirst for fossil fuels.

Marine salvage teams are facing a desperate race against time. Perched precariously on Astrolabe Reef, just miles from the green coast of the Bay of Plenty, is the MV Rena, a Liberian-flagged container ship with a cargo of dangerous chemicals – and nearly 2,000 tonnes of oil.

The ship, which is already leaking fuel from its damaged hull, sits like an unexploded torpedo aimed at the heart of New Zealand. For the moment, most of the Rena's toxic cargo is still safely sealed up. But, if the vessel breaks up on the sharp rocks of the reef, the impact on the environment could be catastrophic.

All around the wreck, thousands of seabirds are busy with their breeding seasons, oblivious to the danger. Rescue workers, however, know that it's only a matter of time until the Rena cracks. With most of its steel frame propped unsupported above the water, the stresses on the ship are immense. 'Put a two or three-metre swell on that,' said one local, 'and something has got to give.'

Yesterday, the news got even worse. Salvage work on the Rena was suspended due to worsening weather – and meteorologists are now warning that a full-scale storm may be brewing.

A huge effort is underway to try to remove as much oil as possible from the Rena before it breaks up. The New Zealand Navy has sent a warship to oversee operations. Experts have been flown in from across the world, and specialist equipment is being brought from Australia in a military cargo plane.

The plan is to pump oil from the Rena into a nearby tanker, then start removing containers from the vessel, hoping to lighten it so that it can, eventually, be towed off the reef. That, however, will require months of work, and some very good luck with the weather.

But even in the best-case scenario, the oil spill has already taken a toll. The first fist-sized clumps of tar began washing up on beaches over the weekend, along with fouled birds – penguins coated nightmarishly in black, sticky slime. They may be the first of many.

Drunken sailor

As salvagers battle on the seas, politicians on land are looking for someone to blame. Ships run into trouble all the time, pointed out New Zealand's prime minister, but it's unusual for a ship to crash into a well-known reef at high speed in clear weather. What was the captain of the Rena thinking? The influence of alcohol is not being ruled out.

But for some environmentalists, the 'drunken skipper' theory is a distraction from the real culprit. Accidents will always happen at sea. Disasters happen when ships are carrying millions of litres of crude oil. The spills that periodically devastate our oceans, they argue, are only a very visible expression of a deeper, more all-encompassing environmental disaster: mankind's long-running love affair with fossil fuels.

You Decide

  1. Who would you blame for the MV Rena oil spill?
  2. Are occasional oil spills a necessary price to pay for economic prosperity?

Activities

  1. Why is oil useful? And why is it dangerous? List some pros and cons. Which side wins, in your opinion?
  2. Choose a previous oil spill from history. What happened? How could it have been prevented? What were the consequences? Report your findings as an article or an infographic.

Some People Say...

“Oil is the lifeblood of the world economy. We can't do without it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is fossil fuel use an environmental disaster?
Well, not everyone thinks it is. The idea, however, is that burning fossil fuels causes global warming and acid rain. Transport of fuels leads to oil spills. Most fundamentally, consumption of fossil fuels has allowed humans to dominate the natural environment, destroying habitats with our ever expanding cities and farms.
Sounds bad!
On the other hand, fossil fuels give us plastics, medicines, transport, fertiliser and all the things we rely on for modern life. They hurt the environment, but learning to live without them is far from easy.

Word Watch

MV Rena
It is common (but not universal) practice for ships to have a prefix of two or three letters before their name. All UK naval vessels, for example, are known as HMS – Her Majesty's Ship. The MV, in the case of the Rena, stands simply for 'Motor Vessel'.
Torpedo
A naval weapon. Essentially, a torpedo is an underwater missile, which hits enemy ships below the waterline in an attempt to sink them. Torpedoes can be launched from ships, aeroplanes and submarines.
Meteorologist
Someone who studies the weather.

Subjects

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