REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- In what is being termed New Zealand’s worst environmental sea disaster, authorities Wednesday scrambled to contain an oil leak from a stricken cargo ship that officials say has worsened fivefold in the last 48 hours.
Since the Liberia-flagged Rena ran aground Oct. 5 on a reef 14 miles offshore, tons of heavy oil has washed up on pristine beaches near the town of Tauranga on New Zealand’s North Island.
Late Monday, rough weather jostled the ship, increasing the flow of oil leaking from its bowels. So far, officials say hundreds of sea birds have been found dead, and dozens more were being treated to remove oil from their feathers.
New Zealand’s environment minister, Nick Smith, called the spill the nation’s “most significant environmental maritime disaster,” adding that cleanup would take weeks.
Investigators are interviewing the ship’s owner to determine why the 775-foot vessel crashed onto the well-charted Astrolabe Reef in calm weather. Since the crash, the weather has taken a turn for the worse, keeping salvage crews at bay.
The source of the leak has yet to be located, said Nick Bohm, a spokesman for Maritime New Zealand, which is leading the response, and divers were scheduled to resume the search for the breach on Wednesday.
Large ocean swells caused an evacuation of a salvage crew from the ship Tuesday as 390 tons of new oil flooded into the ocean and swells, already at 7 to 10 feet, were expected to increase, as officials looked for signs that the ship might break apart. About 70 containers fell overboard.
“We’re not saying it’s going to break up yet,” Bohm said, “we’re not convinced.”
The ship owners, Greece-based Costamare Inc., said in a statement that they were “cooperating fully with local authorities” but did not offer any explanation for the grounding. The ship’s 44-year-old captain has already made an appearance in a New Zealand court to explain his actions before the crash.
Meanwhile, onshore cleanup crews waited for the newest gush of oil to reach New Zealand beaches.
The Auckland-based New Zealand Herald reported Wednesday that soldiers are on alert to help with the beach cleanup. The newspaper carried a photo of workers in hazmat suits collecting clumps of oil that have already reached shore.
Officials said they might issue face masks to protect beachside residents from inhaling fumes from the oil, and authorities said they might close busy Tauranga Harbor from other cargo ships while the cleanup is underway.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: A tanker tries to pump oil from the container ship Rena, which is leaking heavy fuel oil after running aground on a reef 14 miles off New Zealand. Credit: New Zealand Herald / Associated Press