One of the turning points of Bush’s presidency was the failed non-response to Hurricane Katrina. It’s starting to look now very much as if the wreck of the Rena is John Key’s Katrina moment. The government moved too slowly, and squandered the good weather window. Now the ship is spilling both oil and containers, and is breaking apart. It is New Zealand’s “worst maritime environmental disaster”.
Whatever the government does or doesn’t do now, it’s already too late. Three days after the Rena ran aground (when even a guest poster to The Standard could predict the unfolding disaster and was pointing to the inflatable barges that could pick up the oil) the government was still playing pass the parcel on accountability1:
Transport Minister Steven Joyce says the job should be left to the experts. Under the Maritime Transport Act, it is Maritime New Zealand who is responsible for dealing with an oil spill.
Maritime lawyer John Knight says Maritime NZ have issued a notice under the act to the owner of the vessel requiring the owner take all steps to deal with the pollution and the salvage of the vessel itself. If the owner fails to do so, Maritime NZ has the legal right to take full control and recover the costs from the owner.
A container ship whacks into the reef off Bastion Pt and for four days, officials stand by without a tissue between them to mop up the oil before it starts seeping into the porous volcanic shores of Rangitoto, down into the CBD and on to the eastern suburbs beaches.
Such a scenario sounds ridiculous, but it’s what happened last week after the container ship Rena ploughed into a well-charted reef 20km from the port of Mt Maunganui. It’s the slowness of any first response action to the environmental consequences of this disaster that has shocked New Zealanders…
No wonder that local residents were so desperate that they defied the government to start clean up operations on the beach themselves. The Greens’ Russell Norman doesn’t mince his words in this interview: Rena – It’s All The Govt’s Fault2:
Really it’s the government’s fault. … They had five days of calm weather, and they didn’t start pumping oil off the boat until the end of the fifth day, at which point the weather went really bad.
They didn’t order the boat to do the pumping probably until Friday … they missed the window of calm weather. …
The government’s response has just been astonishingly bad. …
We could have got the oil off in that time and the government didn’t do it … if they had two days of calm weather they [salvage experts] could get the oil off, and we had five days of calm weather. …
This has been an amazingly poor crisis management and the result is that we have oil all over the beach and all over some of our most pristine areas.
They still don’t seem to understand that this is an environmental disaster. From the start, they have had the Transport minister fronting.
True to form, what we have had from this government is lies, and John Key denying responsibility. Key’s excuses fly in the face of his government’s earlier assurances that we were equipped to cope, and the lack of leadership on who was responsible for acting as the fine weather ticked away. (At least Key hasn’t tried to claim that the spill would have been much worse under a Labour government. Yet.)
And now we learn that, after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, government ministers looked at getting a specialised emergency response vessel but then dropped the idea without explanation.
Meanwhile the disaster has attracted international attention, see for example this piece in The Guardian, and this slideshow on the Yahoo news site. The tattered “100% Pure” brand takes another hit. And so does the increasingly tattered “Brand Key”. We’ve just witnessed Key’s Katrina moment.
1 Speaking of passing the buck to Maritime NZ, the government assured us that they had “internationally respected experts”, with the team and the equipment required to respond:
Hon HEKIA PARATA: Maritime New Zealand is responsible for ensuring New Zealand is prepared for, and able to respond to, marine oil spills. The Marine Pollution Response Service consists of internationally respected experts who manage and train a team of around 400 local government and Maritime New Zealand responders. New Zealand has equipment and other stores strategically located around New Zealand. In addition, the Marine Pollution Response Service assists regional councils with exercise and oil spill equipment. The plan is responsive and is regularly evaluated to ensure it meets changing risk profiles.
What became of those assurances in practice?
2 And speaking of the government’s fault, this blogger places the blame much earlier, with National’s deregulation of coastal shipping in the 90’s. Shades of the leaky homes fiasco. Can anyone confirm or add more detail?