New Zealand PM calls for inquiry after oil spill

New Zealand's Prime Minister yesterday demanded an inquiry to find out why a stranded ship threatening to spill oil on to the country's pristine coastline ploughed on to a reef in calm waters.

Marine crews were yesterday set to begin an operation to extract oil from the Liberia-flagged container ship Rena that has been leaking fuel since it ran aground on Wednesday.

Heavy swells and gale-force winds are forecast for the area from today. The ship has about 1,700 metric tons of fuel on board, according to Maritime New Zealand, the agency responsible for shipping in the region. The agency believes that so far, up to 30 tons have leaked into the Bay of Plenty, a spot noted for its fishing, diving and surfing.

Prime Minister John Key, who visited the area yesterday, said: "This is a ship that has 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."

In a statement, the owners of the ship, Greece-based Costamare Inc, said they are "cooperating fully with local authorities" and are making every effort to "control and minimise the environmental consequences of this incident". The company did not offer any explanation.

So far, eight sea birds – six little blue penguins and two shags – have been rescued from an oil slick that extends about three miles from the boat.

Environmental agency Greenpeace denounced what it claims is a slow response. "This is an unfortunate illustration of just how difficult it is to deal with oil spills at sea," said Greenpeace spokesman Steve Abel. "Even a slow, and relatively accessible oil spill like this one has clearly stretched New Zealand's response capability." AP