WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The recovery of fuel oil from a stricken container ship grounded off New Zealand resumed on Thursday as salvage teams worked to minimize the damage in the country's worst environmental disaster in decades.
Two days of strong winds and high seas had prevented the pumping of oil from the Liberian-flagged Rena, which has been stuck for more than two weeks on a reef 14 miles off Tauranga on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island.
The 236-meter (775 feet) ship, which has large cracks down both sides, is mostly wedged on the reef but the stern is moving around.
"They have sensors on board the vessel now which are saying that it's got about half a degree of rotation and about a degree's lift at the stern," said Bruce Anderson, the salvage adviser for Maritime NZ, the government agency that supervises shipping.
The ship, which has about 1,200 tonnes of fuel oil on board, most in two rear tanks, could break apart. About 100 tonnes was pumped off before the bad weather, and another 350 tonnes has spilled into the sea.
The oil is as thick as peanut butter and recovery is slow.
"This is an extremely involved and highly complex operation. The last thing we want to do is to rush this process," Anderson said.
No more oil has appeared on beaches, which were cleaned up by thousands of volunteers, soldiers and specialist teams, but oil covered debris from shattered containers has been found floating as far as 250 km (156 miles) east of Tauranga.
About 60 km (40 miles) of the coast, which is popular with surfers and fishermen, have been affected and more than 1,300 birds have been killed.
The ship's captain and second officer, both from the Philippines, have been charged with the dangerous operation of the 47,320 tonne ship, which carries a maximum penalty of a NZ$10,000 ($7,900) fine or 12 months in prison.
(Reporting by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Robert Birsel)