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Government may hold wider inquiry into Rena disaster

Friday 21st October 2011

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A more wide ranging inquiry into the grounding of the containership Rena off Tauranga's coast is looking increasingly likely.

The Environmental Defence Society said Prime Minister John Key has responded positively to its call for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the grounding which has seen oil despoil coastline in the Bay of Plenty and parts of the East Cape.

Key told the society that there would be some form of independent inquiry in the aftermath of the grounding and that the government would shortly consider advice on how it could be established, EDS chairman Gary Taylor said.

"The roles of government agencies need to be reviewed," Taylor said.

Marico Marine senior partner John Riding said the grounding raised a number of issues about the responsibilities of ports and the management of navigation in and around them. His company provides systems that monitor ship movements.

He said that when ports were deregulated in New Zealand in the late 1980s the safety role was given to regional councils. Harbour Boards were dissolved and harbour masters were employed by regional councils.

Also, the role of Maritime New Zealand and the experience of its staff in marine matters needed to be considered.

Ports provided pilot services but under law harbour masters were the only people who had authority, Riding said. Pilots were technically servants of ship owners.

Riding said some ports in New Zealand did not even have a harbour master. Harbour masters were supposed to be a core regulator of traffic management at ports.

Rena had 40 minutes on a straight course to recover from a turn toward the reef, Riding said.

The Rena grounded outside the piloted area of the Port of Tauranga, raising the issue of how far the authority of a port should extend and who should exercise that authority.

Ports overseas often separated marine navigation control from other functions. The commercial port company was essentially a container terminal operator and a separate company managed navigation in and around the port.

The potential liabilities of ports would have to be examined if they were to take on a larger role in managing the navigation of vessels further out. But the systems existed that could have sent a message to Rena advising it that it was heading for the Astrolabe Reef.

Riding does not believe that the ship was rushing to meet the high tide at Port of Tauranga, which has a narrow entrance affected by tidal flows. The vessel had a couple of hours around the tide to get in.

He said the port had invested in a good navigation system.

Large European ports took responsibility for their outer approaches but ports had to be big to fund systems that monitored shipping beyond the piloted area.

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