WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - Marine crews were preparing Sunday for an operation to extract oil from a container ship that is stranded on a reef near New Zealand.
The 775-foot (236-metre) Liberia-flagged "Rena" struck the Astrolabe Reef about 12 nautical miles from Tauranga Harbour early Wednesday, and has been foundering there since. The ship has been leaking fuel, leading to fears it could cause an environmental disaster if it breaks up further.
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.
Maritime New Zealand said in a statement late Sunday that a barge, the Awanuia, had pulled up alongside the Rena and was to begin pumping fuel from the stricken ship once the equipment was connected and tested. The operation is expected to last at least two days, although it could be delayed by bad weather.
A Navy vessel, the Endeavour, will be used as a command platform for the operation.
So far, eight sea birds - six little blue penguins and two shags - have been rescued from the oil slick, which extends about three miles from the boat.
On Sunday, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key visited the area and demanded answers.
"This is a ship that's ploughed 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," he told reporters.
In a statement, the owners of the ship, Costamare Inc., said they are "cooperating fully with local authorities" and are making every effort to "control and minimize the environmental consequences of this incident."
The company did not offer any explanation for the grounding.
"Evaluations so far indicate that hull stresses are within allowable limits and that there is no deterioration of the ship's condition," the company said, adding that minimizing damage to the New Zealand coastline was its priority.
Environmental agency Greenpeace denounced the spill and 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 to its limits."
"It is also a potential disaster for the blue whales and dolphins presently calving in the area, as well as numerous other marine species."