WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A cargo ship grounded off the New Zealand coast since October has split into two pieces after being lashed by pounding seas, spilling sea containers and debris and sparking fears a fresh oil spill could wash ashore from the wreck, maritime officials said Sunday.
The officials said that the front section of the wreck remains stuck in its original position, but the stern section has broken away and is "moving significantly," pounded by 19-foot (six meter) swells.
"There has been a significant discharge of containers and container debris from the ship," said Maritime New Zealand spokesman Ross Henderson, warning the storm will continue for another three to four days.
Oil clean up teams had "been activated to respond to the potential release of oil from the ship and to treat any affected wildlife," he said in a statement.
The Greek-owned Rena ran aground on Astrolabe Reef 14 miles (22 kilometers) from Tauranga Harbor on North Island on Oct. 5, spewing heavy fuel oil into the seas, fouling pristine beaches and killing up to 20,000 sea birds in what has been described as New Zealand's worst martime environmental disaster.
Salvage crews have removed more than 1,100 tons of oil from the stricken vessel. But about 385 tons remain on board — about the same amount that has already leaked into the sea.
The crews have plucked 389 of the ship's 1,370 loaded cargo containers from its decks since it ran aground, while some 98 have been washed over board in the past three months.
Investigations by The Associated Press last month revealed that Australian authorities impounded the vessel, which like many ships is registered in Liberia, but then released it the next day after Liberian maritime authorities intervened, essentially saying the ship was safe to sail and the problems could be fixed later.
Some 10 weeks later, the Rena ran full-steam into a well-charted reef off the coast of New Zealand.
The captain and another senior officer face up to 16 charges relating to the wreck.