Beach cleanup begins as workers slow oil flow from stricken freighter

Sunday, February 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ Workers with shovels and front-end loaders began cleaning tons of oil from the beaches of a northeastern New Zealand town on Sunday after salvage teams reduced the flow of the heavy fuel from a stricken cargo ship grounded offshore.

The Jody F. Millennium, a Japanese-owned and South Korean-crewed ship carrying a load of logs, caught on a sandbar Wednesday night and began leaking its 198 tons of oil, coating sea birds and threatening to become a major environmental disaster.

By Saturday, up to 44 tons of the heavy fuel oil had leaked, spreading along more than a half mile of pristine beach near Gisborne on the North Island, 330 miles northeast of the capital, Wellington, said Bruce Maroc, deputy director of maritime safety.

Within a few miles of the leaking ship are lagoon breeding grounds for a rare sea bird, the New Zealand spotted dottrel, and many other native species, but no birds were found dead by late Saturday.

Some 75 birds have been found with slight oiling but only one red-billed gull has been treated for oil contamination.

``This has the potential to be disastrous for wildlife of this region,'' said Department of Conservation marine officer Debbie Freeman.

An international team of salvage experts backed by New Zealand's navy pumped about one-third of the oil from the stricken vessel into storage tanks, reducing the amount escaping into the sea, maritime operations commander John Lee-Richards said.

``We're seeing hardly any oil leaking at all, that's why we've begun the shoreline cleanup,'' Lee-Richards said.

Salvage teams hoped to have most of the oil out of the vessel before the weather deteriorates later in the week, he said.

Throughout Saturday, helicopters sprayed chemicals to disperse the heavy oil floating in large patches on the sea.

Lee-Richards said floating anti-pollution booms have prevented much of the oil from entering nearby river mouths and the harbor area.

Maritime Safety Authority director Russell Kilvington said a tugboat will arrive at the spill scene Monday to help anchor and stabilize the ship while its fuel oil is transferred to a navy tanker over coming days.

Salvage teams hope to have most of the oil out of the vessel before the weather deteriorates later in the week.