Responding to Rena

It has been heart-breaking for the people of Tauranga and surrounding area to see their beautiful beaches fouled by thick black oil and stinking rubbish spewed out of the ship’s containers.

Clean up26PSA delegate Barb Strange is an administration officer at the Tauranga DOC office and lives next to Papamoa beach, one of the worst affected beaches.

“It took a few days for the oil to get to the beach so we were in a state of suspension. When the oil got here, it was horrifying and the smell was unbelievable. To look at your beach and see birds covered in oil is like watching a horror movie.”

Staff at Maritime New Zealand have been working round the clock to clear up the mess and minimise the environmental damage. They have had the backing of staff from other government agencies bringing additional expertise to the task.

After the Rena grounded, staff from the city and regional councils were among the first on the scene with their local knowledge of the coastal environment. One of those was Peter Mora, a drainage engineer and PSA delegate at Tauranga City Council.

“Before any oil came ashore, we had to record the existing conditions on all the beaches. That way we would know if they had been returned to their original condition. Then when the oil came in, we had to assess all the beaches and rocky outcrops to record where it had come ashore, how much was there and what it would take to clean it up.”

For two weeks, Peter and his colleagues worked 12 to 13-hour days. One of the good parts, he says, was finding two little blue penguins, covered in oil but still alive. 

Defence staff were also heavily involved in the clean-up while up to 70 Department of Conservation employees were deployed from around the country to save the wildlife.

“We immediately clicked in to incident management mode,’ says Barb, who was part of the incident management team. “We’ve now got people on all the islands close to shore as they are affected with little blue penguins and even a few seals coming ashore covered in oil."

Many DOC staff are highly trained in emergency management while others have the technical skills to handle oiled wildlife without causing undue stress.

Hundreds of birds have been saved but, when we spoke to Barb, around 1300 had died. The population of the rare New Zealand dotterel has been decimated.

“Everyone has given 100 per cent and more. They’ve been working 12-hour days and doing it with passion,” she says.

But while they have put their lives on hold, many have also had to put concerns about the future on hold as well. When the clean-up work was at its peak, about 500 DOC officers were waiting to hear if they were among the 102 to be made redundant.

“It’s highly conceivable some will have returned home to be told they won’t have a job,” says PSA executive board member Bruce McKinlay, himself a DOC officer. 

When disaster hits, we naturally turn to the public sector for the skills and know-how the response demands.  But next time, there will be fewer people to contribute their technical expertise, he says.

Over the past three years, around 5,500 government jobs have been cut or left vacant. This represents a massive loss of knowledge and expertise. Questions are now being asked about the continued ability of the public sector to mount successful responses to future disasters. 

It has not escaped public notice that, when faced with the Rena disaster, Maritime New Zealand had to pull in specialist expertise from elsewhere, including some of the very people it had made redundant not so long ago.


This article is from the November 2011 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.