The captain and the navigating officer of a cargo ship that ran aground on a New Zealand reef last year pleaded guilty Wednesday to mishandling the vessel and altering ship documents.
The men, both Filipino, were responsible for the sailing path of the vessel Rena on Oct. 5 when it ran aground on the well-charted Astrolabe reef near the port of Tauranga. In the days after the crash, the ship spilled about 400 tons of fuel oil, fouling pristine beaches and killing thousands of seabirds in what has been labeled New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster.
In a Tauranga court Wednesday, both men pleaded guilty to operating a ship in a dangerous manner and trying to pervert the course of justice by changing the ship's documents after the crash. The captain also pleaded guilty to discharging harmful substances from the ship.
The perverting the course of justice offense is the most serious, carrying a maximum prison sentence of seven years.
The 774-foot (236-meter) Liberia-flagged vessel split in two in January after foundering on the reef for three months. Both halves remain perched on the reef, with the stern section largely submerged. Salvage crews, who removed more than 1,000 tons of oil from the ship after the crash, are continuing the painstaking task of removing shipping containers.
New Zealand's government this month estimated the costs of the cleanup at 130 million New Zealand dollars ($108 million). Most of the costs have been met by insurers, although taxpayers have paid for some costs. The ship is owned by Greek-based Costamare and was chartered by the Swiss-based Mediterranean Shipping Company.
The captain pleaded guilty to all six charges filed against him, while the navigating officer pleaded guilty to four of the five charges against him and did not enter a plea on the fifth, pending the outcome of a legal hearing scheduled for May 22.
The court has suppressed the names of the men, which is common in New Zealand's judicial system. The names will remain suppressed until their sentencing, which is set for May 25.
The captain's lawyer declined to comment to The Associated Press, and the navigating officer's lawyer did not immediately return calls.
A December investigation by the AP found that Australian authorities impounded the ship 10 weeks before the crash after finding 17 safety and maintenance violations, but that Liberian maritime authorities intervened, essentially saying the ship was safe to sail and the problems could be fixed later. It's not clear whether any of the previously identified problems played a role in the grounding.