Bunkers on Sunken Vessel Make For "Ecological Time Bomb" off New Zealand's Coast

Tuesday August 25, 2015

Keith Gordon of the New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group Inc. (Underwater Heritage Group) says that bunkers onboard the RMS Niagara, which sank off of New Zealand's coast in 1940, makes it "an ecological time bomb," local media reports.

Gordon says the RMS Niagara, which is lying on its side in the main shipping channel between the Hen and Chickens and the Mokohinau Islands in 120m of water, was carrying 4200 tonnes of fuel oil on a voyage from Sydney to the U.S. via Auckland before it hit a German mine and sunk.

"Her sinking caused a huge amount of environmental and ecological damage, up and down this coast and over to Coromandel, far more damage than the Rena caused, but being wartime, it wasn't recorded in detail,” explained Gordon.

Following the vessel’s sinking there were reportedly 15km long oil slicks stemming from the wreck's location, and oil is said to have been seeping from the sunken ship ever since.

Authorities have reportedly claimed that the surfacing oil is from two vehicles being carried on the RMS Niagara.

"We know it's bunker oil that's coming up, we've taken samples,” said Gordon noting that he has sent a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) down to film the wreck several times, revealing “icicle-shaped rusticles on the hull, indicating the steel is changing structure as the iron in it oxidises.”

Gordon argues the deterioration of the vessel’s steel increases urgency for a survey, estimating that there could be about 1000 tonnes of oil still in the wreck’s tanks.

While Gordon says that an old sonar survey and remote controlled filming has indicated that the ship’s tanks are still intact, he questions as to how long they will stay that way.

Requests by the Underwater Heritage Group for authorities to invest in a survey to determine how much fuel the wreck still holds are said to have gone unanswered, with Gordon noting that “at 120m, it's too deep, it's out of sight and out of mind."

Gordon argues that the RMS Niagara "poses as big an environmental threat as the Rena," a container ship that sunk off the New Zealand coast after running aground in 2011, resulting in a bunker spill.

In March 2013, it was reported that while about one or two tonnes of heavy fuel oil still in the wreck of the MV Rena will leach out over time, the ship's owners and insurers said it would be best to leave what's left of the ship in place.