The grounding of the 236m MV Rena on the Astrolabe Reef in the Bay of Plenty exposes the lack of maritime regulation and unpreparedness of the government to respond to such a disaster. This is New Zealand's worst environmental disaster with oil washing up on once pristine beaches destroying both wildlife and important ecosystems.
The government's inaction in the first four days has been breathtaking. In fact the government acted like a possum caught up in the headlights of a car. The lack of suitable equipment and expertise to remove the 1700 tonnes of fuel oil & 200 tonnes of diesel from the ship in the first 4 days when conditions at sea were calm was fully exposed. As the predicted storm hit over night on day 5, BOP residents woke up to the MV Rena breaking up on the reef, 88 containers floating in the ocean, oilslicked beaches and toxic fumes. Due to government inaction frustrated residents started to clean the beaches themselves despite the risks from the toxic oil .
According to the Maritime Union deregulation in 1990 by a former National government has created a situation where substandard flag of convenience shipping has been encouraged and enabled. The union further stated “Maritime New Zealand “inspection” of the Rena in Bluff on 28th September 2011 apparently consisted of the inspector asking the Master whether previous problems had been fixed. This is the same Master that the authorities are now trying to pin the blame on a couple of weeks later after the disaster.”
“But at the time of the inspection they obviously were prepared to take the Master at his word that everything was hunky dory on his ship, despite the fact it had been hauled up in China and Australia for multiple problems.”
According to the Maritime Union “this is a standard approach of Maritime New Zealand to dealing with obviously problematic vessels, the only surprise in the grounding of the Rena is that it hadn’t happened earlier.”
It is now becoming a regular theme that systemic policy and regulation failures are resulting in serious harm to workers, the community and the environment.
The Maritime Union has had longstanding concerns that Maritime New Zealand regulations and inspections of flag of convenience vessels were superficial, limited and not strict enough.
The Maritime Union says comment by Transport Minister Steven Joyce that the Maritime Union’s views were “political” were accurate. The union said “Mr Joyce is right. The issue is political. It is political because the John Key led National Government have been happy to have flag of convenience ships running on the New Zealand coast as a result of their political decisions.”
“In this case their political decision to promote and allow flag of convenience shipping on the New Zealand coast has had real life consequences, which have proved far beyond the political ability and the practical ability of the Government to deal with.”
“If we allowed trucks on New Zealand roads that were licensed in Liberia or some other semi-functioning failed state, and driven by unregulated overseas drivers, there would be an outcry. Yet that is what we allow on the New Zealand coast and now we are paying the price.”
Due to the union's concerns in July 2010 they lobbied the government for a ready response vessel for such an incident. Naturally the request fell on government “deaf ears”.
Obviously the profits of the shipping companies are more important than the safety of vessels at sea. Such a disaster was waiting to happen. Not only is it an environmental disaster but an economic one too with major downturns predicted in the BOP fishing and tourism industries.
Social Appeals supports the Maritime Union's call for proper regulation of coastal shipping and for all Maritime New Zealand reports on the MV Rena to be made public. The New Zealand coastal shipping industry is not safe in bosses ownership perhaps it is time to seriously consider nationalisation.