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Environment

Officers plead guilty in New Zealand oil spill disaster

The two men in charge of the cargo ship that ran aground on a New Zealand reef and caused a significant oil spill have pleaded guilty to charges relating to the accident, the worst of its kind in New Zealand's history.

The captain and navigating officer of a ship that ran aground off the coast of New Zealand, causing the country's biggest sea pollution disaster, both pleaded guilty on Wednesday to criminal charges. The pair could face jail time.

The officers pleaded guilty at Tauranga District Court to charges of operating a ship in a dangerous manner and altering the ship's documents after the accident. They got out on bail last year, and their names have not been released due to fears for their safety.

Sentencing is scheduled for May 25, and maritime officials said they could face lengthy jail terms.

The two men, both Filipino, were in charge of the Liberian-flagged cargo ship Rena when it hit a reef near the port of Tauranga on October 5 last year.

About four hundred tons of fuel oil were released into the surrounding waters, killing thousands of sea birds and polluting pristine beaches. After a largely successful effort to recover the remaining fuel oil, the ship split in two in January after months of staying perched on the reef.

Environment Minister Nick Smith called the accident the worst sea pollution disaster in New Zealand's history. The government estimated that the ongoing cleanup efforts will cost 130 million New Zealand dollars ($109 million or 81 million euros), most of it being covered by insurers but including some taxpayer money.

"It's important that justice is brought to bear here," Prime Minister John Key told Fairfax Media. "Significant environmental damage [has] occurred in New Zealand and the government is very concerned about that."

acb/ (AP, AFP)