Emergency evacuation sparks concern over Rena's fate

Update, 4:45pm: New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster has been fully realised, says environment minister Nick Smith.

Update, 4:45pm: New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster has been fully realised, Environment Minister Nick Smith says.

He told a press conference this afternoon that the scale of the oil leak found in the hull of the Rena container ship has increased "fivefold" since it first ran aground last Wednesday.

Dr Smith also mentioned that significant quantities of oil will start to wash up on beaches around the area, possibly for weeks to come.

This announcement comes as the government says that the Rena response has already cost millions of dollars, and a guarantee that taxpayers won't have to foot the bill is also still unclear.

Update, 1:45pm: A new breach in one of Rena's main fuel tanks has seen an increase in oil being spilled off the coast of Tauranga, a leak which is increasing in size "several times over".

A spokesman has said that the latest breach has resulted in greater amounts of oil being emptied from one of the vessel's main fuel tanks, with the oil drifting south-west towards Mt Maunganui.

"One of the main tanks has been breached. It is very significant in the scheme of things."

Meanwhile, the Awanuia bunker barge assigned to pump fuel out of the stranded container ship is still out of service due to minor damage it recently received, and it is still not certain when it will be re-deployed to join the recovery efforts.

A mayday call has been sent out from the stricken Rena cargo ship this morning for an urgent evacuation of its remaining workers still on board as 3 metre swells begin to rock the coast.

Marine radio listeners have told Newstalk ZB that a request for an Iroquois helicopter to pick up any remaining crew still on board has been made, with the Tauranga coastguard confirming that the Navy has been called to assist crew on the ship as well.

It was speculated that the ship was beginning to break up, but a spokesperson for Maritime New Zealand said that the mayday call was just a “standard precautionary measure”.

ABOVE: Prime Minister John Key and Transport Minister Steven Joyce at this morning's post-cabinet press conference.

“The ship is not breaking up. Yes, a mayday call has gone out but that is just a standard precautionary measure to get the crew off,” she said. “The crew has come off for safety reasons and they will stay off until it is safe enough to go back on. They send out the mayday call as that is the way to get them off [the ship] quickly.”

As much as 350 tonnes of oil has escaped the ship this morning after severe weather conditions caused the vessel to shift around in big seas, in turn grinding away part of the reef it is stuck on.

The 47,000 tonne cargo ship became stranded on its way to Taurange from Napier on the Astrolobe Reef (off the coast of Tauranga) last Wednesday, where an oil leak was detected later that evening.

Pumping oil from Rena to the bunker barge Awanuia began around 8.30pm on Sunday but has been suspended for the moment due to hampering weather conditions.

Yesterday, the 1km exclusion zone was increased to 1.5 nautical miles, or about 2.8km.

With over 1,300 shipping containers on board the Rena, it has been reported that the vessel is in fact carrying some dangerous goods including 4 containers of ferrosilicon. This solid substance has the potential to cause an unwanted fire risk which, if contacted with water, can give off dangerous amounts of hydrogen.

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