TAURANGA, New Zealand — The condition of a stricken cargo ship stuck on a reef and leaking oil off the coast of New Zealand worsened Wednesday, with about 70 containers falling overboard and the vessel moving onto a steeper lean.
Meanwhile, the captain of the Liberian-flagged Rena was arrested and charged under New Zealand's Maritime Act. He could face a year in prison if convicted.
The ship has been foundering since it ran aground Oct. 5 on the Astrolabe Reef, about 14 miles (22 kilometers) from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand's North Island. The government has demanded to know why the ship crashed into the well-charted reef in calm weather, but the vessel's owner has given no explanation.
Hundreds of tons of heavy fuel oil have spilled from the hull, leading New Zealand's environment minister, Nick Smith, to call it the country's biggest maritime environmental disaster. Clumps of the oil have washed up on pristine beaches near Tauranga, and environmental officials said 53 birds were found dead and 17 were getting emergency treatment to remove oil from their feathers.
The captain of the Rena appeared in Tauranga District Court on Wednesday, charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk. If convicted, the captain – whose name was suppressed by the court – faces a fine of up to 10,000 New Zealand dollars ($7,800) and 12 months in prison, said Maritime New Zealand, which is managing the emergency response. The agency said more charges were likely to follow.
Weather on the reef Wednesday was terrible, with swells up to 16 feet (5 meters), Maritime New Zealand spokesman Steve Jones told The Associated Press. The brutal conditions were making it impossible for a salvage crew to board the 775-foot (236-meter) ship, he said. Without the salvage crew aboard, oil cannot be pumped out of the ship.
"It's appalling," Jones said of the weather. "Everything is still in a holding pattern."
Forecasters were predicting the swells would ease to 6 feet (2 meters) by Thursday, at which point salvage crews might be able to try to board the ship, Jones said.
There are 1,368 containers on board, 11 of which contain hazardous substances, the maritime agency said. The containers holding hazardous materials were not among the 70 that had fallen overboard, Jones said. Still, it is highly likely more containers will topple off because of the rough weather and the ship's steep list, Jones said.
One of the containers washed up on a nearby island Wednesday, Jones said. The others were bobbing in the sea around the ship, or had possibly sunk to the ocean floor. Maritime New Zealand issued a navigational warning to other ships in the area.
In a statement, the owners of the vessel, Greece-based Costamare Inc., said they were "cooperating fully with local authorities" and were making every effort to "control and minimize the environmental consequences of this incident." The company did not offer any explanation for the grounding.