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From mine bomb to time bomb: Is this shipwreck north of Auckland a potential oil spill from WW2?

In brief

  • The RMS Niagara, sunk by a German mine near Mangawhai during WW2 might still threaten an oil spill as the wreck continues to break down. 
  • Maritime NZ initially said small leaks would break down naturally, but have since changed their tune. 
  • Despite advocates raising awareness and the government’s own advice, ministers have ignored all calls to fund any investigation. 

The sinking of the RMS Niagara 

It was 3:40 am on the night of June 14, 1940, when nearly 350 passengers on trans-Pacific ship RMS Niagara woke to a thunderous explosion. 

The ship had struck a German mine. Passengers scrambled for lifeboats as the gold-laden ship sank, taking with it an estimated 1000-1400 tonnes of fuel oil, leaving what experts call a ‘ticking time bomb’ of environmental devastation which may still be waiting to go off. 

The wreck sank in 120 metres of water. Oil began leaking immediately after the bombing and – despite wartime censorship covering up the problem – it was widely known that oil was washing up on the shores of Mangawhai. 

While the first lot was cleaned up by human effort and natural breakdown of the oil, some think another spill is likely – and the more the ship breaks down underwater, the sooner the leak may occur. 

The Government doubts there is a problem but doesn’t really know

By the 1980s Keith Gordon, an Auckland-based underwater explorer who holds some of the salvage rights to the gold, was joining forces with Hauraki Gulf advocate Mike Lee. The pair organised diving expeditions to the wreck site – which lies between three Gulf marine reserves. 

By the late 1990s, multiple dives were observing oil leaks, observing extensive deterioration of the wreck. Anyone on the water’s surface could see oil slicks Gordon estimated to be up to 15 km long in some cases. 

Gordon, Lee and others implored Maritime NZ to lean on the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry for the Environment to release funds to a) Survey and assess the leak and b) To clean up the wreck, if warranted. 

Maritime NZ initially said that small oil leaks would naturally break down in the environment. However, in September 2018, a Maritime NZ report recommended a comprehensive underwater survey and environmental risk analysis be carried out. 

Funds to investigate were requested under the previous government  but it was  turned down. 

It’s 84 years since the ship sank – and the Government still hasn’t surveyed the leak

Today, we’re left with the following situation. 

  • Iwi, divers and environmentalists are begging parliament to release funds to clean the wreck up
  • Petitions were given to the parliament under Labour by thousands of citizens and schoolchildren – without any progress
  • Even Maritime NZ has changed its position and is begging the Government to pay for a wreck survey.

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