New Zealand oil spill: The country's worst environmental disaster ever

Heartbreaking is a word that should never have to be used to describe a beach scene. Unfortunately, that is the only word that can be used to describe the result of the latest oil spill, “New Zealand’s most significant maritime environmental disaster,” according to their Environmental Minister, Nick Smith.

On October 5, 2011, the Rena, a cargo ship owned by Greece-based Costamare Inc., ran aground in calm weather on the well known Astrolab Reef, off the coast of New Zealand. Marine teams began the salvage effort on Sunday, October 9th to remove 1,870 tons of oil and 220 tons of diesel from the sinking ship but were interrupted by dangerous ocean conditions. They were only able to remove 11 tons of the toxic cargo. There are other potentially dangerous goods aboard, which authorities are making a priority when the weather permits salvaging.

Estimates of up to 350 tons of oil having already leaked into are only going to increase. There is fear that with the inclement weather conditions, leaking will be accelerated. There are also fears that the ship itself will break apart, releasing the totality of its contents into the ocean. Until the weather calms down, salvage crews will not be able to begin the process of removing the cargo from the ship.

The affects of this spill are already being seen on the shore, from tar balls to the remnants of wildlife. According to local resident Dave Tee, “The remains of birds and fish are being washed up on the shore. There are dead penguins, jellyfish, sea-snails. Seagulls are eating debris and no doubt ingesting toxic material.” Environmental officials have reported 53 birds were found dead and 17 were receiving emergency treatment for oil exposure.

Local residents are not waiting for the all clear to begin the clean up process. Donning home gear such as rubber gloves, spades and buckets, they are trying to collect as much of the oil as possible to prevent it from being swept out to sea again. They are not happy with level of response from local authorities. “Now that the weather has turned, it will be harder to contain the oil. More action should have been taken at an earlier stage,” said Tee.

These disasters are grim reminders of the true cost of oil dependency. Until we decide to make a serious commitment to renewable energy, we will continue to see disasters of this magnitude.