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Situation Worsens at New Zealand Oil Spill

Millions of animals affected

Oil continues to spill from the cargo ship that ran aground on a reef off the coast of New Zealand two weeks ago. The ship continues to list and fears are that it may break in two.

Up to 100 tons of oil have been removed from the ship. Another 350 tons have leaked into the ocean. And 1,400 tons remain on board. An estimated 1,300 sea birds are reported dead so far. No estimates are available on the fate of fish and other marine animals.

Worsening weather had made rescue efforts more difficult, with 40-mph winds hindering the salvage operation on the container ship on the Astrolabe Reef.

But on Thursday morning, salvage experts said they hoped to be able to begin pumping oil off the stranded Rena and onto the bunker barge Awanuia.

Steven Joyce, New Zealand’s transportation minister, said there was little chance that all the oil could be removed before the vessel broke loose.

“I think it’s a case of getting everything off that you can,” he said. The ship is leaning so far to one side that 70 containers have already gone overboard.

New Zealand’s environment minister, Nick Smith, has called the spill the nation’s “most significant environmental maritime disaster.”

Forest and Bird spokeswoman Karen Baird said the area from Te Kaha to the East Cape, which is especially vulnerable to the spill, is an important feeding ground for marine life of all kinds.

“It’s a very, very important feeding area – we’d be looking at birds like black petrels that come across from Great Barrier Island, cookilerias, flesh-footed shearwaters … all of New Zealand’s albatross species feed in there at one time or another,” she said. “So you’ve got this whole range of seabirds at this hotspot for feeding – that’s a real concern for us.”

The Mediterranean Shipping Company announced Tuesday that it was making a voluntary donation to the cleanup because it was “deeply concerned” about the toll that leaking oil is taking on the environment and the disruption it is causing to people’s daily lives and businesses. The company emphasized that it does not own the Rena and is not responsible for its maintenance and operation.

The owner of the Liberian-flagged ship is Greece-based Costamare Inc., which has said it’s working closely with authorities to try and minimize the environmental damage from the grounding.

Both the captain and an officer of the ship have been charged under New Zealand maritime law with operating a ship in a dangerous manner, which could bring them each a year in jail.

Meanwhile, investigators are interviewing the crew to determine why the 775-foot vessel crashed onto the well-charted Astrolabe Reef in calm weather. Costamare officials have said in a statement that they were “cooperating fully with local authorities,” but did not offer any explanation for the grounding.