* Ship just holding together, but oil leaks slow
* Clean up teams getting on top of pollution
By Gyles Beckford
WELLINGTON, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Salvage teams raced on Friday to resume pumping oil from a stricken container ship which has almost split into two pieces off the New Zealand coast as businesses started to count the cost of the country’s worst environmental disaster in decades.
The Liberian-flagged Rena has been stuck for nine days on a reef 14 miles (22 km) off Tauranga on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, spilling about 300 tonnes of heavy toxic fuel and some of its hundreds of containers into the sea.
Authorities said the 236-metre (775-foot) ship was in a precarious position, as salvage teams prepared to cut holes in the stern to get to the tanks holding more than 1,000 tonnes of fuel.
“What’s holding the vessel together at the moment is the fact she’s lying on the reef and some internal structures, companionways, ducting and the like inside the vessel,” Maritime NZ spokesman Andrew Berry told a meeting of local residents.
The salvage teams are working to install equipment and platforms on the high side of the aft section of the 47,230-tonne ship, which is listing at up to 25 degrees, so they have a level surface to work on.
“There is some hope ... they might be able to start pumping oil tomorrow, but we cannot pin time frames on things, that ship is very, very dangerous,” said Matthew Watson of the Svitzer salvage company.
He said oil leaks from the ship have slowed and there was a “reasonable level of confidence” that the stern tanks are intact and would hold.
Oil has washed up along about 60 km (37 miles) of the coast, which is popular with surfers and fishermen.
Weather and sea conditions were favourable, but winds are expected to strengthen and may force the salvage workers off the ship, which has lost 88 of its 1,360 containers.
An estimated 1,000 white-suited workers, including soldiers, wildlife experts and residents, were on the beaches scraping and collecting clumps of the foul-smelling fuel oil cargo wreckage from the ship.
More than 220 tonnes of waste, including oil and debris from the ship, have been cleared from the beaches.
Residents said the beaches were looking cleaner as the winds were now blowing oil out to sea allowing clean up teams to make progress.
“It’s much better than it has been, not that much oil is coming (on shore)and we seem to be getting on top of it,” said resident Liz Bridgeman.
Authorities said more than 3,000 people had volunteered to help clean up the coast and teams were being trained to go where needed.
Preparations have been made in the small town of Whakatane, about 80 km (50 miles) down the coast from Tauranga, should wind and currents push oil that far.
Tourism businesses in the district, which is a holiday spot renowned for good surfing waves and big-game fishing, were reporting cancellations, and some were fearing for their survival.
“Effectively, I think a lot of people will have to sell their business or go under,” said surf school operator, Bjorn Waling.
The area’s chamber of commerce is working with government agencies on possible short-term subsidies and payments to affected businesses.
The ship’s captain and second officer, both from the Philippines, have been charged and remanded on bail, accused of operating the ship in a dangerous manner.
But the mayor of Tauranga dismissed an apology from the ship’s owners, Greece-based Costamare Shipping Inc.
“It’s half an apology and a lot of excuse, no it’s not good enough, I’d like to see the ship’s owner come to Tauranga and stand up in front of our people,” Stuart Crosby said on TVNZ.