WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Small amounts of oil from a container ship stuck on a reef for days began washing up at a popular New Zealand beach on Monday, while work to extract oil from the vessel was called off because of weather concerns.
The Liberia-flagged Rena struck the Astrolabe Reef about 14 miles (22km) from Tauranga Harbour early Wednesday, and has been foundering there since. The 775-foot (236-meter) ship has been leaking fuel, leading to fears it could cause an environmental disaster if it breaks apart.
After beginning an operation Sunday to extract up to 1,700 metric tons of oil from the stricken ship – the equivalent of about 10,700 barrels – marine crews halted pumping Monday after managing to remove just 10 metric tons.
Fist-sized clumps of oil were found at Mount Maunganui beach, a favorite spot for surfers, according to Maritime New Zealand, the agency responsible for shipping in the region. The beach is on New Zealand's North Island, about 100 miles (160km) southeast of Auckland.
The agency believes the ship has another 200 tons of diesel on board. So far, an estimated 30 tons of oil or fuel have leaked into the Bay of Plenty.
Because it's a cargo ship rather than an oil tanker, any spill would be small in comparison to disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which dumped an estimated 262,000 barrels of oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound. But because the Rena is close to shore, the oil could still foul delicate estuaries in an area known for its pristine environment.
Maritime New Zealand said that a barge had begun pumping fuel from the stricken ship, but that work was called off in order to keep crews safe from heavy swells and gale-force winds forecast to hit the area. The operation is expected to last at least two more days once it resumes.
Salvage experts and naval architects are on board to monitor the ship, and sensors should indicate if the ship is in danger of breaking apart, the agency said.
"The top priority is to first remove the oil, then lighten the vessel by removing the containers, and finally, move the ship off the reef," it said.
About 200 people are working on the operation, and New Zealand's defense force has about 300 people standing by in case major beach cleanups are needed.
So far, at least eight sea birds have been rescued from an oil slick that extends about three miles (5km) from the boat.
On Sunday, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key visited the area and demanded answers.
"This is a ship that's plowed into a well documented reef in calm waters in the middle of the night at 17 knots. So, somebody needs to tell us why that's happened," he told reporters.
In a statement, the owners of the ship, Greece-based Costamare Inc., said they were "cooperating fully with local authorities" and were making every effort to "control and minimize the environmental consequences of this incident."
The company did not offer any explanation for the grounding.
The Rena was built in 1990 and was carrying 1,351 containers of goods when it ran aground, according to the owners.
In addition to the oil, authorities are also concerned about some potentially dangerous goods aboard, including four containers of ferrosilicon. Authorities said they would make it a priority to remove those goods as part of their operation.