Rena Oil Spill - Despite the Official Line, the same questions remain
by Richard Gladwell on 24 Oct 2011
Rena - aground on Astrolabe Reef, Tauranga in calm water in the first few days of the grounding Dudley Clemens
Over two weeks after the Liberian registered MV Rena, struck the Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga, on New Zealand's east coast. It is only recently, that real progress has been made in uplifting oil from the now fractured container ship.
From the outset questions were asked, when little appeared to be done in the initial period of fine weather that ran for a four day period. Now that oil is being successfully retrieved the lights have dimmed on this issue a little, however from the perspective of learning from the experience they must be answered accurately.
The 236 metre container vessel struck the Astrolabe Reef, 12nm out from Tauranga, New Zealand's biggest port by volume. She struck the reef at 2.20am on Wednesday 5 October travelling at a speed of 17 knots.
It was close to high tide at the time, and the weather was calm - and remained that way through to the Saturday at least, before a strong onshore wind came into play from Sunday evening.
The incident was soon declared to be New Zealand's greatest environmental disaster.
Using wind prognosis information available from PredictWind, Sail-World was able to predict that she could break up by the Wednesday, a week after she struck. That process did in fact start on the Wednesday with her hull splitting.
The 47000 tonne container ship was carrying 1700 tonnes of oil, of which 350 tonnes leaked in the first week - after an initial sheen slick thought to be hydraulic oil emanating from her bow thruster which was in the area which took the full impact of the 'terrain closure'.
As of Saturday afternoon just 256 tonnes of oil have been removed by the salvage team in the 18 days since the start of the incident.
On 6 February 2002 at 10pm the log ship, Jody F Millennium ran aground at the entrance to Gisborne Harbour, on the east coast of New Zealand, after being forced to leave her berth in the face of rapidly rising winds and a four metre swell. She touched the sandy bottom and became stuck fast metres off the surf beach at Gisborne.
A Tier 3 Oil response was ordered six hours after she struck, the first time this had been done on New Zealand before an oil spill had occurred.
According to Maritime New Zealand, 'when she ran aground, the Jody Millennium held 641 tonnes of intermediate fuel oil (HFO 380) plus 63 tonnes of marine diesel to power her generators and other equipment and about 20 tonnes of lubricating oils.'
That's a total of over 720 tonnes or about 40% of the stated load aboard MV Rena.
According to the Maritime NZ report into the incident 25-35 tonnes of heavy fuel oil spilled from a ruptured tank aboard the vessel and found its was onto the beaches of surrounding pristine Poverty Bay.
Four days after going aground, when the weather had calmed down, two inflatable oil barges from Auckland company Lancer Inflatables were flown in by C-130 Hercules and were deployed alongside the still grounded log carrier.
From the Maritime NZ report into the Gisborne grounding incident: In a move to mitigate the potential loss of fuel oil from the double bottom tanks to the environment, further oil was pumped from No. 1 and No. 2 double bottom centre fuel oil storage tanks to the vessel's upper wing ballast tanks. A total of 210 tonnes of heavy fuel oil was subsequently pumped from the vessel and loaded onto Lancer barges. Of this amount, 103 tonnes was transferred to HMNZS Endeavour and the balance to oil disposal sites ashore.
Sound familiar to the Rena? Not really. But many believe that it is what could have happened.
(It should be noted that the hull damage caused by Rena ramming into the reef at speed, would be different to the Jody F Millennium, which touched on one side, then the other and stuck on sand - but side on to s significant beam swell which caused hull crushing.)
As with the Jody F Millennium the pumping of oil from a damaged tank to an undamaged tank certainly happened onboard the Rena, and was done with the ships own pumps. (She was able to keep all crew aboard and systems and power running until the crew were evacuated due to heavy weather some five days after the grounding.)
Once the Lancer barges were bought alongside the Jody F Millennium, the fuel spill was pumped into the barges using the ships own gear and the the offloading was done in a day.
Many outside Maritime NZ were curious as to why the good experience from the Jody F Millennium was not applied to the Rena - given that there was initially a good window of fine weather available along with calm seas.
In 2002 the deployment of the inflatable barges took just a few hours from leaving the then MSA Oil Spill Centre in Auckland. On arrival in Gisborne, they took an hour to inflate, and were put into the water the following morning. They could have gone in that night, had that been necessary.
Using these timelines the barges could have been alongside the Rena on the day of the incident, and pumping commenced (given that at the time the list of the Rena was 11 degrees away from the reef and in deeper water).
Ship's fuel oil does need to be heated to a temperature of about 30 degrees to flow, and has the consistency of paint at this temperature. It is very smelly and toxic, not too different from road tar was one description. The fuel is normally heated before use in the immediate tank, however all tanks are able to be heated to facilitate pumping between tanks.
While much is now made of the difficulty of removing unheated oil, it must be remembered that the stuff is pumped abroad the ship in the first instance. While it is trite to suggest the that the oil will come off as easily as it goes onboard, the point remains that it can be done, and that it is good seamanship that it should be able to be jettisoned reasonably easily in an emergency situation.
In an article, on 15 October in the NZ Herald, Transport Minister Steven Joyce responded to questions raised as to why the oil had not been taken off the Rena sooner, and why the inflatable barges manufactured by Lancer Industries were not deployed much earlier, particularly given that MNZ were contacted on the day of the grounding by Lancer's Technical Director, offering two additional barges.
Joyce claimed in the Herald that the barges 'were unsuitable. Particularly with the sea conditions, the solution was to bring the Awanuia barge in. The vessel to carry the oil away from the ship was not the limiting factor in getting started. The limiting factor was the condition of the pipe work and the organisation of things on the ship so that the salvors could start pumping oil.'
The fact is, borne out by photos and weather prognosis information, that seas were calm in the initial four day fine weather window (given that there is always some degree of ocean swell - as there was in the Jody F Millennium, when the Lancer barges were alongside the ship during the offload).
Other claims that the inflatable barges were not suitable to be worked alongside the vessel are fatuous. Good seamanship requires that when vessel comes alongside fenders are used to protect both vessels.
Secondly inflatables are used by defence forces around the world as boarding and intercept craft - even in boarding moving vessels rough waters in mid ocean - conditions far more damaging than coming alongside a very stationery ship in calm waters.
While there may have been damage to the pipework between the forward and after tanks, great play was made by MNZ early in the salvage process as to fuel oil being pumped into secure tanks on board and those tanks being capped to prevent a spill in the event of the ship breaking apart and sinking in the then advancing bad weather.
Wouldn't it have been an option to off load the oil from the after secure tanks onto a series of barges alongside the Rena - each capable of taking 100 tonnes of oil each - and transferring this either ashore or to a waiting vessel such as the HMNZS Endeavour as was done with the Jody F Millennium?
Contrary to the implied information given by the Minister, the evidence seems to suggest the Lancer barges are capable of working in six foot significant seas (meaning a wave height of around 10ft), and have worked in rough water conditions in an oil spill that occurred in New Plymouth.
As it was the option chosen by MNZ and the salvors (given that MNZ have to approve the salvage plan), the oil vessel Awanuia, arrived five days after the Rena's terrain closure. She was damaged in the now rising seas and had to be withdrawn after only 10 tonnes had been pumped aboard.
After the crew was taken off the ships power systems were shut down, the oil cooled, pumping via the ships gear was no longer possible, and the oil devolved into a much more solid form.
Henderson based Lancer Industries is the largest manufacturer of inflatable oil barges in the world, and has been established for almost 40 years. They supply these vessels to over 30 countries, US Coastguard owns more than sixty of the barges. MNZ bought two of the barges 15 years ago.
They are designed specifically for rapid oil response, weighing about 800kg when deflated and are in a package about the size of an office desk. Simply the idea is that they can be taken in an aircraft or trailer or on the back of a small a 4WD truck to where they are required, inflated and ready to go within an hour of arrival.
Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint program spoke to Lancer Industries Technical Director Ronald Winstone about his contact with Maritime New Zealand immediately after the Rena incident.
The essence of the matter is that Winstone contacted Maritime NZ on the day of the Rena incident offering two further barges that Lancer were completing for export to England and offered these for use in the Rena incident. 'We contacted them on Day 1', he told Checkpoint, 'but the offer wasn't acted upon.'
'We contacted them by email and told MNZ that we were in the process of despatching the barges to England and if they would like to have them redirected, we would be happy to do so.
'The barges could potentially have been alongside on the Wednesday afternoon. Why they did not accept the offer I do not know', he added. 'We got no response from Maritime NZ. I tried a second time to make contact, and then we reluctantly sent the barges onto England.
'It is a common response to wait for a bigger vessel to become available, but the purpose of our barges is to provide a quick response until the bigger vessels can be bought into play, if they are required.
'Our barges are designed to be used alongside a stricken vessel or tethered off. We would expect to operate before the big grunters come alongside. Those first four or five days of the Rena grounding would have been absolutely perfect to operate the Lancer recovery barges.'
Responding to points that pumping gear was not available, even though the barges might have been, Winstone noted that the crew had the ability to pump between tanks, so therefore it should have been possible to pump off the ship using flexible hoses. 'You can go an awful long way very quickly,' he commented on the use of hoses.
'The objective is to get as much oil off the vessel as quickly as possible, before it is spilt', Winstone said in summary.
Winstone believes that it would have taken 17 trips to offload the oil from the Rena into Lancer barges capable of carrying 100 tonnes per trip, and that using just two barges it could have been accomplished in three days, or potentially less given that four barges were available.
While it is the responsibility of the owners to remove the Rena, Maritime NZ does have the ability to act to protect the New Zealand environment, and is given this ability under the Maritime Transport Act.
Despite a convoluted ownership responsibility over the Liberian registered Rena, the normal chain when a ship is involved in a serious incident, is that the Master contacts the owners, who in turn contact the Insurers, who in turn contract a salvage organisation.
Exactly who owns the MV Rena is not clear.
A maritime law expert contacted by Sail-World, while not able to comment specifically on the Rena, explained that typically Liberian registered ships are each owned by a Liberian registered company, say Rena Ltd.
The ship is then managed by another company - which operates the vessel and provides the crew under what is effectively a facilities management basis. They in turn deal with a charterer (such as Mediterranean Shipping) who in turn sell the available space to freight parties, who contract with their individual client.
The case of the Rena, the salvor appointed is Svitzer, an international salvage organisation. It seems that the people on the ground in New Zealand are from the Australian arm of the organisation - previously United Salvage, an Australian company acquired by Svitzer.
'Traditionally salvage is conducted on a 'no cure, no pay' basis', says our Learned Friend.
It is not known on what basis the Rena operation is being conducted. However a completely successful salvage is not necessary for the salvors to be able to claim recompense via a Lloyds of London Arbitrator.
In this case any removal of oil would give rise to a salvage payment, as the salvors would claim they had saved the owners and their insurers damages through their efforts.
'The usual practice is to talk up the difficulty and risk involved,' Sail-World was told. This line is then maintained when Lloyds Arbitrator hears the claim against the insurers who then pay out the salvor on the basis of the decision reached.
Maritime NZ's position is difficult in a situation such as the Rena.
On one hand they have the ability under the Maritime Transport Act to move to command, and take control, and do whatever is necessary to protect the New Zealand environment . However that short term ability is offset against the medium to longer term preference for the vessel owner, insurer and salvor to undertake the primary salvage actions.
Any action taken by Maritime NZ would be claimed against the insurers, and in the Rena case presumably this will include environmental clean up.
Most vessels are covered by Club Rules governed by Protection and Indemnity Clubs of which there are about six in the marine insurance domain. These are mutual insurance groups with owners carrying their own insurance through contributions to the clubs.
Traditionally the salvage is conducted on the basis of Lloyds Open Form, which is a two page standard document, based on the No Cure, No Pay basis. No fee is specified for the salvage job, with the amount being determined by an arbitrator, appointed by Lloyds, usually a Queens Counsel. The Form has been in existence since the 19th century and is the most common form of salvage agreement.
Whether this is the basis of the Rena salvage is not in the public domain.
For its part Maritime NZ seem to have trodden a fine line between being directly involved and issuing notices on the responsible parties to take quick action. It would seem from comments made by the Minister of Transport that it required his intervention, in the immediate 24 hours after the grounding with the international parties, to get some traction dealing with a wreck at the bottom of the world.
But the bottom line, in the opinion of many, is that Maritime NZ, if it had followed the experience from the Jody F Millennium experience almost a decade previously, could have acted much more quickly and decisively to get the oil from the Rena within the fine weather window that existed for four days after the terrain closure by the vessel.
Currently there are no real answers forthcoming as to why MNZ did not even return the call and emails from Lancer, the largest manufacturer in the world, of inflatable oil barges designed specifically for a rapid response in cases such as this.
However it could be a case of the old truism of the America's Cup - if you want to find out the truth, follow the money. And in this case, maybe the liability, too.
It would seem that the answers on the Rena Disaster will not now be forthcoming until the official inquiries are concluded.
That is a little late for the thousands of sealife that have died as a result; the environmental damage that has ensued as a result of the Rena Disaster, and the lack of direct response in the initial four day fine weather window that existed.
New Zealand had a great opportunity with the Rena grounding to show to the world how a rapid response could operate, to get the oil off, and then deal with the much more complex salvage issues. It would seem to have been an opportunity lost.