Salvage teams are working around the clock to pump oil from the stricken vessel off the coast of New Zealand's North Island
Salvage teams are pumping oil from a stricken container ship off the New Zealand coast before bad weather arrives which could split the vessel in two and spew more oil on to beaches.
The Liberian-flagged Rena has been stuck for 12 days on a reef 14 miles (22km) off Tauranga on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, having already spilled about 350 tonnes of toxic fuel and some of its hundreds of containers into the sea.
Salvage teams were adding extra pumps on Monday to speed up the recovery of the oil, which is as thick as peanut butter, from the 236m (775ft) vessel through holes in the side to a barge.
More than 70 tonnes have been recovered, but there are fears that bad weather will halt the operation and possibly send the stern section, which contains more than 1,000 tonnes of oil, tumbling into 60 metres of water.
"If the vessel falls off the reef it could puncture a tank," said Bruce Anderson, spokesman of Maritime NZ, which is responsible for supervision of the shipping industry.
The agency said a crew of three salvage team members would remain on board overnight to continue with pumping efforts.
Conditions around the ship have been good but rising winds and sea swells of four metres are forecast.
The salvage company said the ship was precarious and further spills of oil not in tanks seemed inevitable.
"That ship is very, very sick. She is fractured, she is broken, she is on her knees … There probably will be more oil leaving that vessel if the weather turns nasty," Matt Watson of Svitzer salvage company told Radio New Zealand.
He said if the stern section of the ship sank, it would complicate the recovery and require divers.
The salvage team leader Drew Shannon said the ship had its own unique challenges.
"Our team is taking their time to remove the oil safely to minimise further risk to the environment," he said.
"We are also working feverishly in the background with planning and logistics on the removal of containers. Our priority however remains the removal of the oil from Rena."
Separately, the company that chartered the 47,320-tonne ship met the government and gave a commitment to contribute to the clean-up costs, although it disputed it had any liability.
New Zealand's transport minister, Steven Joyce, said the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the world's second biggest container line, had been reminded their reputation in New Zealand was at stake.
"My understanding is they will make some financial contribution, and the amount is for them to assess obviously in terms of their reputation in this country and the way New Zealanders feel about what has happened," Joyce told reporters.
MSC has said the liability for the grounding and salvage is with the ship's owners, Greece-based Costamare Shipping Inc, who last week apologised in a video statement.
The ship's captain and second officer, both from the Philippines, are due to reappear in court on Wednesday on charges of operating the ship in a dangerous manner.
Beaches that were fouled with dinner-tray-sized lumps of oil have been largely cleaned up after thousands of volunteers joined soldiers and specialists.
"It feels good now, but we don't know how long it will last. The threat of pollution will be hanging over us for ages," said a local resident, Kim Greene.
Oil has washed up along about 37 miles of the coast, which is popular with surfers and fishermen. Nearly 1,300 birds have died in the spill, which is seen as New Zealand's worst environmental disaster in decades.