Rena: Good News and Bad Politics

A good crowd turned out last night at the Mt. Maunganui Surf Club to hear an update on the environmental monitoring programme one year after the oil came ashore from the Rena. Marine scientists Professors Chris Battershill of Waikato University and David Schiel of Canterbury led the update, and were accompanied at the top table by the iwi rep Rahera Ohia and the Rena Recovery Manager Catherine Taylor.

I had been along earlier in the day to the media briefing, but the public meeting was actually a lot more useful and informative, with more detail about both the monitoring and what they’ve found so far. That said, because the programme is only a third of the way through, there’s not yet a whole lot to report. The Recovery Programme has its own Web site,  so I won’t go into all the slightly mind-numbing organisational details here.

At the 11 Oct 2012 media briefing on the Rena one year on, from left, Prof. Chris Battershill, chair of Coastal Science at Waikato University; Prof. David Schiel of Canterbury University Rahera Ohia, the iwi rep for the Rena recovery; and Catherine Taylor, Rena Recovery programme manager.

My take on the update so far, based on what the scientists told us, is that the environment is recovering remarkably well, and that the clean up was remarkably effective. Schiel made the point that we, with our 8000-strong army of volunteers in sperm suits, did it right – that the hand-and-sieve approach to the beaches has turned out to be hugely more effective than any effort with heavy machinery would have been, since that tends to just drive the oil deeper into the sand.

I’m actually always a bit suspicious of “everything’s OK now” claims, and after the briefings, I’m not entirely convinced things are as rosy as the speakers last night suggested they are. (More on that below.) That said, I tend to trust the info it a lot more when it’s coming from scientists, not politicians, and I confess that I don’t know a whole heckuva lot about marine science, so it would be churlish to start second-guessing the results they presented. (Oh, and speaking of politicians, more on that below, too.)

The Rena did cause a lot of death: Nearly 2,500 dead birds were collected during the clean up, though the Maritime NZ factoid page goes on to state that 1,448 of them were oiled. (Note to self: find out if they’re saying the other 1000 or so weren’t Rena victims, or if they just don’t know?) I’ve never seen any counts of dead fish, and the scientists were asked last night about longer-lived fish species: They said they’d be doing some sampling. Mussel beds didn’t do so well, with yesterday’s update showing a 20 percent die-off in some areas. As for the sand dwellers, like tua tua, graphs presented at the public meeting showed big spikes in nasty Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) soon after the oil came ashore, but a pretty quick recovery back to near normal levels.

One thing the scientists are looking for from now on is the impact on the reproductive health of filter feeders and other kaimoana species. Will they reproduce properly this season? We’ll have to wait for those results.

There was some heartening news about the Little Blue Penguins, who are back in their burrows and breeding, with a normal number of nests occupied. Then there’s the Astrolabe reef, or Otaiti, itself. The scientists haven’t been able to get out there and take a good look because of the salvage operation, but they’re about to start doing that, and they really have no idea what they’ll find.

Questions at the meeting revolved around the spill of big amounts of plastics (OK, that was my question), which Battershill says is a concern, with the release of significant volume of plastic beads and crushed PET bottles on their way to recycling. A lot of the latter have wound up lodged under rocks around Motiti. Kina, apparently, like to chew on them, but Battershill didn’t (yet) have evidence of environmental damage. (If anyone sees signs of this, he’d like to know, and there’s contact info for the Rena Recovery Programme on their site.)

Another issue raised was that of the containers: What’s in the 250 or so still on the Rena, and, perhaps more importantly, the couple of hundred lost at sea. Basically, no one knows. Everything got pretty scrambled on the ship, and apparently working out just what went where is something that’s yet to be done. This is NOT good! Taylor said with the salvors having essentially finished removing the above-deck containers, attention will be turned to this, but it strikes me we’ll need to keep at them to get more information on this issue.

Bad Politics

Back to politics for a minute. There was one MP at the public meeting who made his presence felt, and not in such a good way. NZ First’s Brendan Horan was the first questioner on his feet after the presentation, and he launched into an unprovoked and, in my view, inappropriate attack on the scientists, accusing them of doing a snow job. I’d say political attacks should be aimed at political targets not scientists – and that scientists know better than politicians what they should be sampling – but so you, dear reader, can judge for yourself, here’s the pithy part of Mr. Horan’s question/speech:

Horan: I came here tonight expecting scientific proof and evidence and the first rule of science is observation. And all of us in this room have observed what has happened with our environment. We don’t need a propaganda snow job. Why did we not have water samples every day on the beach for those people who wanted to go swimming and surfing in the water. Why are there not water samples available to us all today? Why is that not up there?

David Schiel passed the mic over to his colleague, Chris Battershill, but before doing so, gave Horan a poke: “Rather than giving us a lecture about science, I think what I’d like to do is pursue some of the questions – the substance of the questions you ask.”

Indeed. Aside from the out-of-place attack on the scientists, what about the question: The beaches are covered in oil, and Horan is worried about people wanting to go surfing? Say what?

Chris Battershill, admirably polite, responded:

Professor Chris Battershill at the Oct 11 media briefing.

Battershill: Water sampling in that sort of event is ineffective because to do it properly would require lots of probes and monitors right throughout the beach front and at a range of depths as well. Rather we were using the tua tua and these other organisms which are filtering the water themselves, and what they’re doing is they’re filtering it over 24 hours, including when the tide’s out because they’re down with the sediments washing around them. So they are your monitoring device and by pulling those up and reading their tissues you’re getting in effect the same thing. What you’re asking I think is at slight variance to really what we’ve been commenting on. You’re asking questions about the public’s ability to know when it would be safe to go into the water and it’s a very different question.

Horan went on, and on, and on, though at some point – I didn’t notice when – a TV camera that had been in evidence was put away, and a helpful member of the audience called out: “The TV camera’s gone now Brendan.”

Oil Still Coming

Finally, on to not so rosy aspect: I wrote a personal (aka somewhat emotional)  column for the BOP Times on the Rena anniversary and in it briefly covered the question of the oil that’s still washing up on the beaches. Basically, the scientists don’t yet have the answer to what that is or where it’s coming from. They have gathered samples and they’ll be able to check if it’s Rena oil (I find it hard to take seriously the prospect raised by a couple of people that it could be oil from another passing ship! But we’ll see.) and how long it’s been out there. That is, is it fresh oil (the salvors, at a briefing last week, said there was no way it was coming from the Rena), or old oil being stirred up. The results, they say, should be back in a couple of weeks.

One of my frustrations on this point is that the scientists keep talking about the oil that washed up recently as though it were a one-off event, and I presume they’re talking about the incident reported in the New Zealand Herald.  But I run on the beach most days, and I’ve seen this a lot!

Oil on the beach at Mt. Maunganui, 1 August 2012.

Pretty much after any big blow from the east, in fact. (I took the photo at left in August!)  I made the mistake of giving up calling the Oil Spill hot line because they didn’t seem interested unless there was a lot of it. And I haven’t photographed every occurrence — but will go back to doing so.

I appreciate that this smaller stuff is impossible to clean up, but the info about how frequently this is happening needs to be passed down (or up) the line. It would be good to know more about this and how much longer it’ll keep happening.

I encourage everyone who sees oil on the BOP beaches (and, no, it’s not just happening at Papamoa) to call 0800 645 774 (0800 OIL SPILL) even if the people on the other end don’t seem interested. Make sure it’s logged!


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