|The ship's owners said they were making efforts to minimise the environmental consequences of the incident [EPA]|
The amount of oil spewing from the stricken vessel MV Rena, which hit a reef last Wednesday, had increased five-fold after it sustained further damage in a storm overnight, Nick Smith, the country's environment mnister, said on Tuesday.
| "In the coming days [oil leak] will be noticeable, it will be a large scale environmental disaster" |
- Michael Morrah, journalist
Smith made the remarks in Tauranga, where once-pristine beaches have been fouled with oil.
He described as tragic the latest developments, in which up to 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil leaked into the Bay of Plenty early on Tuesday, but said there was little authorities could do to prevent it.
"It is my view that the tragic events we are seeing unfolding were absolutely inevitable from the point that the Rena ran onto the reef in the early hours of Wednesday morning," he said.
The latest spill dwarfed an initial leak of 20 tonnes after the Liberian-flagged vessel ploughed into the reef, 22km offshore.
The crippled ship ruptured a fuel tank after it was pounded by five-metre (16.5-foot) swells, forcing a salvage crew on the vessel to issue a mayday earlier Tuesday and evacuate as a safety precaution.
Earlier, many of the crew had been evacuated but the captain and salvage workers had remained on board. But all have now left the ship.
Michael Morrah, a journalist from New Zealand's TV3 television station, told Al Jazeera: "All the staff have been accounted for.
"But there has been a leak of 200-300 tonnes of oil from the ship, and in the coming days it will be noticeable, it will be a large scale environmental disaster."
John Key, New Zealand's prime minister, who flew over the scene in a helicopter on Sunday, said two inquiries to determine why the ship had collided with the Astrolabe Reef were already under way.
| Rescue efforts to help wildlife affected by the spill has taken place [EPA] |
"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," Key said.
In a statement, the owners of the ship, Greece based Costamare, said they were "co-operating fully with local authorities" and were making every effort to "control and minimize the environmental consequences of this incident".
The company did not offer any explanation for the grounding.
The animal welfare group Forest and Bird said the timing of the accident, in the middle of the breeding season for birds, was "disastrous".
Greenpeace said it could also affect whales and dolphins calving in the area, as well as other species.
The Rena was built in 1990 and was carrying 1,351 containers of goods when it ran aground, according to the owners.
In addition to the oil, authorities are also concerned about some potentially dangerous goods aboard, including four containers of ferrosilicon.
New Zealand authorities said they would make it a priority to remove those goods as part of their operation.