Thursday, 29 December 2011

Fresh revelations on the Rena grounding- who else is to blame?


"The cleats securing the hatch could be removed with a single finger"


The Associated Press has uncovered Australian inspection records that show that the Rena- the ship that grounded on the well charted Astrolabe reef off the coast of Tauranga and created the biggest ever maritime disaster in New Zealand's history- had major safety and other issues before the oil spill. The report details how the Rena was first detained at Freemantle in Australia, then released after assurances from the Liberian authorities and allowed to sail- something that has drawn howls of protests in New Zealand, raised questions about inspection regimes and prompted renewed calls for action against the Flag of Convenience system and what one newspaper calls the "dangerous culture of cost-cutting" in the maritime industry. Critics have pointed out that an inspection in Shenzhen, China- two weeks before the July inspection in Freemantle- had found 18 deficiencies on the Rena.

The Greek owned and Filipino crewed Rena spilled 400 tons of oil after the grounding that appears to be the result of a clear case of terrible navigation. Occurring just ten weeks after the Australian inspection, the resultant oil spill killed 2,000 sea birds and fouled the pristine environment. Almost ninety containers have fallen off the listing ship so far, some floating as far as a hundred miles before washing up on beaches.

Defects found by the Australian authorities before the grounding included faulty cargo-securing pins and hatch-securing cleats, outdated navigation manuals, a data recorder still unpacked and a tampered alarm. Cargo securing equipment was not original, appeared makeshift and not fit for purpose. "The cleats securing the hatch could be removed with a single finger," a report says.
The initial detention in Freemantle cited problems with the securing of the hatch, the shipping containers and an overall lack of maintenance. Emails from inspectors show that they were concerned that the cargo might not remain secure in rough weather; other records underline the condition of the rusted and improperly tensioned hatch cleats and ill-fitting cargo securing pins. In addition, in what appears to be a gross violation of MARPOL rules, an unauthorised delay mechanism was found wired into the bilge alarm.

The Associated Press report quotes inspection reports, emails and faxes to substantiate how Australia impounded the Rena, which was released a day later after Liberian maritime authorities intervened, essentially saying that the ship was safe to sail and the problems could be addressed subsequently. Although the safety violations found in Australia appear to have no direct link with the eventual grounding, "the records portray a hopeless image of an aging ship in poor repair amidst a dangerous culture of cost-cutting", a New Zealand newspaper says. The Australians gave the ship three months to demonstrate that its safety system was in compliance; she would run aground before that.

Inevitably, the disaster has brought maritime industry practices into focus. "They nickel-and-dime things, they don't do proper maintenance, they don't pay the crews to do repairs, and they don't have enough spare parts on board," said Harry Bolton, the director of marine programs at the California Maritime Academy, who assessed the records for Associated Press.

Somewhat shockingly, the Rena was inspected by multiple authorities after Freemantle and found fit to sail. The Liberian authorities conducted their own inspection later. Subsequent inspections were conducted in Melbourne and Sydney in Australia- and at Bluff in New Zealand in September, where 19 deficiencies were found. The Rena was not detained anywhere.

She grounded a month later. Today, the captain and a navigating officer face criminal charges of operating a ship in a dangerous or risky manner, polluting the environment and altering the ship's documents after the crash. Liberia says the grounding was the result of "gross navigational error." Costamare- the owners- imply fatigue may be an issue. The question is, who else- or what else- is to blame?

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