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Geopolitics

Excitement Turns To Anger As Oil Spill Rains On New Zealand's Rugby World Cup Parade

Oil continues to wash ashore along New Zealand’s North Island following last week’s grounding of a Liberian-flagged cargo ship. The prime minister promises to clean the area’s pristine beaches “no matter what the cost,” but among locals, frustration is mo

The Rena aground on a reef off the coast of New Zealand.
The Rena aground on a reef off the coast of New Zealand.
Bruno Lesprit

TAURANGA – The boy's school in Tauranga, on New Zealand's North Island, rarely receives such prestigious visitors. While the students – teenagers of mostly Maori descent – practice on the rugby field in the pouring rain, Prime Minister John Key and the transportation minister, Stephen Joyce, enter a small theater in the building that has become the crisis management center for an oil spill off the island's coast.

The oil – about 350 tons worth so far – is leaking from a cargo ship that ran aground on a reef at around 2 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 5. So far the spillage does not appear to include 11 barrels of hazardous materials that are known to be onboard the vessel. But there's reason to fear that the highly toxic material could also eventually end up in the water, since the cargo boat's metal hull has been bent and cracks have appeared and gotten larger. The strong current further twists the metal. The back section of the boat has become detached from the front and is sinking.

Pumping the fuel out poses an enormous problem. "The situation on board is very dangerous. The fuel containers are moving, and in fact, everything is moving," says Bruce Anderson, the head of the rescue unit. For safety reasons, the operation has to be done by helicopter.

Prime Minister Key hasn't hidden the fact that the situation has been continually deteriorating. But for now he's limiting his remarks mostly to thanking volunteers and reassuring local communities that the beaches will be cleaned up, one by one. He promises that they will be restored to "the state they were in before the catastrophe… no matter what the cost."

"Clean me"

The affected area stretches along nearly 30 kilometers, from Mount Maunganui, a volcano considered sacred by the Maori, along the beaches of Papamoa, the large suburbs of Tauranga. On Wednesday, 250 official volunteers pick up tar balls along the beaches. They are now joined by the military, which has just been called in to help. The volunteer headquarters is set up across from the school in Tauranga, in a brick warehouse. Their hours are precise: from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

On the edges of the mountain, where an immense "clean me" sign has been drawn in the sand, the beach seems more or less oil-free only a short time after the morning high tide. The clean-up was done the night before by a large group of volunteers. Now only a few people are working. Among them are three crew members specialized in rescuing birds. An estimated 200 birds have already perished. "What is happening here is much more important than the rugby world cup," says one of the volunteers.

Heading towards Papamoa, the local "Sunshine Paradise," the black substance is already scattered and dispersed in the sand. Approximately 20 people, working with rakes and empty paint buckets, are taking care of the mess. The group includes both Maori and Pakeha (the local word for New Zealanders of European decent). Some curious onlookers stop to take photos with their mobile phones. "It's clean, but you'll have to start again tomorrow, and then the day after tomorrow," says one of the passersby.

Not everyone is so easily discouraged. One volunteer named Sharon, a Kiwi producer who works alone with a household shovel and a pair of "two-dollar gloves," insists on helping even though she's been told my some authorities to stay away.

"They want to control the situation. But I notice that there is a lot of work to do and it is not all being done," she says. "I have the impression that there is no authority. There are a lot of meetings, a lot of talk back and forth, but not much action. It's a little chaotic. They told us that they would come by at 1 p.m. But I have been here since 8 a.m."

Inevitable frustration

A little further on, one resident recalls that on the evening of Oct. 4 – a good nine hours before the accident was first made public – he saw black smoke emanating from the "Rena," the Liberian-flagged ship that is stuck some 20 kilometers from the beach and is occasionally visible. "How is it possible that the accident wasn't reported until 2 a.m. the following day?" he wants to know.

In this atmosphere of frustration, it doesn't take much for the usual refrain of government neglect to resurge. John Key says he's not surprised people are angry. "I can understand people's frustration, they want to think that everything can be done quickly," he says. "But we are working as fast as we can."

Stephen Joyce, the transportation minister, admits it will be necessary "to clean the beaches constantly in upcoming weeks."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Youtube

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