Their names will remain suppressed until they are sentenced, but the Filipino captain and Second Mate of the ‘Rena’ have pleaded guilty to causing the country's worst ever environmental disaster and now face huge fines and jail terms. Maritime New Zealand says that the Captain has pleaded guilty in a Tauranga District Court to operating a vessel in a dangerous manner, releasing toxic substances and attempting to pervert the course of justice by altering the ship's documents. While the Captain pleaded guilty to all six charges against him, the Second Officer has pleaded guilty to all but one of the lesser charges. The two were charged in October under the country’s Maritime Transport Act, Crimes Act and Resource Management Act. Another legal hearing is set for May 22; sentencing is scheduled three days later.
There was outrage in New Zealand after the 47,230-tonne Liberian-flagged Rena struck the well-marked Astrolabe Reef about 12 miles from Tauranga- New Zealand’s biggest export port- in early October last year. The environmental disaster raised questions about competency and training of crews; the outrage escalated after an investigation by AP found that Australian authorities had impounded the ship more than two months before the grounding until the Liberian maritime authorities intervened, after which the Rena was released.
Prime Minister John Key said after the Captain's guilty plea that the charges against him have been vindicated. "It's important justice is brought to bear here; significant environmental damage has occurred in New Zealand and the Government is very concerned about that," he said.
The stricken Rena broke in two in January after hundreds of tonnes of oil had leaked and killed thousands of seabirds after the grounding; beaches were fouled with oil sixty miles away in what was a pristine resort area. Since then, salvors have been working around the clock and have recovered about half of the ship’s 1300 containers and a thousand tonnes of oil; many containers had spilled into the water after the ship broke up. The rear section ship has fallen off the reef and is almost completely submerged but the bow section is still aground and wedged upright.
The vessel is owned by a unit of Greece's Costamare Inc., and was under charter to Swiss based Mediterranean Shipping at the time of the incident. New Zealand’s government has estimated the costs of the cleanup at US $108 million, some of which has been paid by taxpayers.
Sentences doled out to the two Rena officers may be heavy. One of the charges they face- under the Resource Management Act 1991- for 'discharge of harmful substances from ships or offshore installations' carries a maximum fine of $300,000 or two years imprisonment and $10,000 for every day the offending continues. And at least the Captain faces- under the Crimes Act for altering ship documents- a maximum of seven years in jail.