NZ Sea Pollution Disaster Captain Is Jailed

Jonathan Samuels, Australia correspondent

The captain and second officer of a ship that caused New Zealand's biggest sea pollution disaster when it ploughed into an offshore reef have both been jailed for seven months.

The Filipino officers were in charge of the Liberian-flagged Rena when it hit the reef last year, releasing an oil slick that killed thousands of sea birds and fouled beaches in the North Island's pristine Bay of Plenty.

Captain Mauro Balomaga and navigation officer Leonil Relon had pleaded guilty in February to a range of charges including attempting to pervert the course of justice by altering navigation records after the accident.

They also admitted operating a ship in a dangerous manner and discharging harmful substances from the cargo vessel.

The court heard the pair had failed to comply with the "basic principles of navigation" when they attempted to take a short cut to reach port in the early hours of October 5 last year.

About 40 minutes before the Rena struck the reef, the navigation officer altered its course, alerting the captain to the change.

The court heard the crew had then failed to record the change on the chart and no steps had been taken to project Rena's forward course.

About 10 minutes before the ship grounded, the Astrolabe Reef appeared on the ship's radar, but the captain believed it was a small vessel or a false echo.

The court heard that at no stage did he instruct any action to be taken to avoid colliding with the object on the radar.

Maritime New Zealand director Keith Manch welcomed the sentences, saying the ship's officers had to be held accountable for their actions.

"This grounding has had significant consequences for the Bay of Plenty community and the country as a whole," he said.

"Today marks a milestone in the response, which is still under way."

More than 300 tons of toxic fuel oil spewed from the vessel after it hit the reef, creating an oil slick kilometres long, which washed onto beaches at the popular tourist spot, coating birds in thick black sludge.

Environment minister Nick Smith described it as New Zealand's worst maritime pollution disaster.

The accident triggered a dangerous salvage operation which involved crews scrambling to pump the remaining oil from the Rena's fuel tanks as heavy seas pounded the stricken vessel and opened up deep cracks in its hull.

Some 5,000 volunteers were mobilised to clean up the shoreline of the bay, which contains marine reserves and teems with wildlife including whales, dolphins, penguins, seals and rare sea birds.

The vessel eventually broke up on the reef in January and the stern sank, further complicating a salvage operation which is still continuing after eight months as crews remove shipping containers from the bow.

The government has estimated the disaster clean-up will cost NZ \$130m (£63m), most of which will be covered by the Rena's owner, the Greece-based Costamare Shipping Company, and its insurers.

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