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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Breaking up is not so hard to do

Just ask Rena. She's Liberian (not to be confused with librarian), a real looker, and a bit of a mess. She also happens to be the source of New Zealand's worst marine environmental catastrophe in history.

Last week the container ship Rena ran into Astrolabe Reef off the coast of New Zealand at full speed. She's now leaning precariously, perched on the top of a rock, being battered by an onslaught of high winds and waves determined to bring her down, as a growing crack spreads up her side. Rena is breaking up, and she's not holding it together very well. So far she's lost 70 of her cargo containers (don't worry, none of the 11 containers carrying toxic chemicals have fallen overboard yet), at least 350 tonnes of bunker fuel oil, and all crew who were evacuated due to her extremely dangerous position. 1,700 tonnes of fuel remain onboard, ready and waiting for the open ocean or the tank of a salvage vessel (whichever comes first), and her beloved captain and first mate have been charged. It's looking like Rena may have found her final resting place.

The container ship Rena is reported to be breaking up after she and her crew ended up on the rocks.

It's mildly ironic that Rena sits where she does. Astrolabe Reef is indeed named for the ancient astronomical device used for maritime navigation prior to the days of the sextant and GPS. You'd think they would have seen it coming on their chart plotter or at least radar. It's clearly visible during the day for Pete's sake, regardless of modern or old-school navigation equipment (Okay. Okay. They ran into at night). Yes, the ship was two miles off course. Yes, there really isn't an answer as to how a ship with modern technology could run aground going 17 knots. Yes, the crew may have been celebrating the captain's 44th birthday. But alas, when have well-known, visible reefs stopped collision courses before? Think Pathfinder. I think the crew there was playing video games.

All joking aside, the grounding and currently in-progress breaking up of Rena is no laughing matter (although sometimes laughing is the last emotion available in situations like these). While the aptly named Bay of Plenty and surrounding area are threatened by a growing oil slick and the cargo carnage, the cries we hear are not surprising. Fishermen are concerned about their catches, residents feel they have lost their piece of paradise, dead animals are washing up on beaches, and everyone is wondering who will clean up the mess.

I can't help but look at the dire scene in New Zealand and do some horrifying forecasting if the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Project goes ahead on the British Columbia coast. If approved, the project will bring 225 crude oil tankers per year to the waters washing against the shores of the Great Bear Rainforest, to ecosystems unlike anywhere else on earth. Each ship will be able to carry up to 285,000 tonnes of crude oil. Rena, in comparison, only had approximately 2,000 tonnes of oil onboard. And as the Rena has shown us, containment and clean-up of oil in such cold, treacherous seas is next to impossible most times of the year.

The incident in New Zealand is a stark reminder of the risks we take when transporting cargo by sea, what we are willing to lose for ever more consumption of goods, and unfortunate proof that accidents do happen. While the cause of Rena's demise is still unknown, I'm guessing that the finger pointing will be to the crew. Approximately 80 percent of oil discharges into the sea are said to be cause by human error. Eighty percent! No amount of planning or technology can change the fact that humans make mistakes.

Despite Enbridge's promises and the most advanced risk reduction measures and safety plans available, if the proposed Northern Gateway project is approved, a major spill will not be so much a matter of likelihood as a matter of time. Accidents happen. They are an inevitable part of shipping. Look at Rena. Think about what we stand to lose from an oil spill. Do we really want her oil-carrying cousins sailing our waters? I think not.

Katie Terhune is the Living Oceans Society's Energy Campaign Manager. To find out more about the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project and the risk of oil spills on the B.C. coast, please visit the Tankers section of our website.

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