A Northland shipwreck has been labelled an environmental time bomb - so why is the government refusing to act?

9:00 pm on 4 June 2023

By Mike White of Stuff

The RMS Niagara, which was sunk by German mines off Bream Head, Whangarei.

The RMS Niagara, which was sunk by German mines off Bream Head, Whangarei. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For 30 years, officials and politicians have been warned about an oil-laden shipwreck on the brink of causing the country's worst environmental disaster. For years, they've ignored the risk.

As Germany offers help, and pressure from iwi and conservation groups mounts, Mike White investigates the scary and confounding story of the RMS Niagara, and why the authorities are refusing to do anything about it.

In April, 20 people gathered in an Auckland office, some shaking hands with new acquaintances, some nodding at old friends, some beaming in by Zoom.

Some were lured by the scent of sunken treasure, some by the prospect of an extreme technical challenge, all had ecological disaster on their minds.

They'd come together to discuss a shipwreck lying off Northland's east coast, its hull corroding millimetre by millimetre, year by year; its hulk swept by storms and snagged by trawler nets; five gold ingots from its cargo still somewhere within it.

For 83 years, the steel encasing the RMS Niagara's fuel tanks had been gnawed at to the point their collapse was imminent.

With that came the risk of its oil spilling and coating areas including the Poor Knights and Goat Island marine reserves; Little Barrier Island, and Hen and Chicken Islands nature reserves; and even Great Barrier and Waiheke Islands - a risk so high that the Hauraki Gulf Forum's chief executive, Alex Rogers, decided someone had to do something.

So he organised the meeting, where concerns could coalesce, with the aim of sparking action on the looming catastrophe of the Niagara.

In June 1940, a German raider, the Orion, snuck into New Zealand waters, and laid more than 200 mines across the Hauraki Gulf's entrance in an attempt to blockade Auckland.

Four days later, the Niagara, a passenger ship en route to Vancouver, struck one of the mines and sank quickly, about 30km offshore, 40km southeast of Whāngārei, inside today's Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.

All 349 passengers and crew survived, but the cargo, including 590 gold bars en route from the British government to pay America for munitions, disappeared in 120m of water.

Nearly all the gold was eventually recovered. However, the less alluring but more sinister cargo, fuel, remained ignored over the following decades.

In the 1990s, fears began to be raised about oil leaking from the Niagara and causing slicks in one of the country's most spectacular marine areas.

But Maritime New Zealand, which has responsibility for the wreck, rejected concerns.

Seemingly ignoring firsthand reports of leaks, it argued the oil had virtually solidified in the cold temperatures below 100m, or had dissipated.

In 2005, while claiming incorrectly that the wreck had almost disintegrated, a Maritime NZ spokesperson put the threat to the environment as "very low-key, if at all".

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Survivors from the RMS Niagara. Photo: (Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-8634)

But at the same time, Maritime NZ admitted it hadn't examined the wreck, and actually had no idea how much oil remained on board.

And here's the crucial conundrum which has bizarrely and unfathomably dogged the Niagara issue for decades: Nobody has any idea how much oil remains - because nobody has ever checked.

The Niagara had capacity for over 4300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, and likely had close to that when it left Auckland, some of which spilt when it sank, covering local beaches.

More was discharged when salvage crews recovering the gold used explosives to access the strongroom.

And numerous reports show oil has continued to leak from the wreck over the years.

As Pete Mesley, who has dived the Niagara six times, says, "All we know is the Niagara was destined for Canada, and she wasn't half-full, she wasn't three-quarters full, she was f.....g full.

"So whether that shit has gone into the water in the last 80 years, or whether there's still a massive time bomb ticking, waiting to go, we don't know."

By 2018, with concerns about the Niagara not going away, Maritime NZ commissioned reports on the risk of an oil spill.

Again, no physical work was done to ascertain what oil remained on board, with a UK salvage company, London Offshore Consultants, simply using estimates from New Zealand shipwreck expert Keith Gordon that there could be 1600 tonnes.

In September 2018, a Maritime NZ report to associate transport minister Julie Anne Genter and conservation minister Eugenie Sage recommended a comprehensive underwater survey and environmental risk analysis be carried out

Genter and Sage twice put in Budget bids to fund this work.

Both were turned down by senior ministers.

So nothing happened, leaving nobody any wiser about the wreck's condition, or the threat of an oil spill.

It was as if everyone was saying, we don't know how big the problem is, we aren't willing to find out how big the problem is, but we hope like hell it's not as big a problem as some people think it is.

Kiri Allan

Associate transport minister Kiritapu Allan has responsibility for the Niagara shipwreck. She was previously also conservation minister. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

And that's essentially the situation in 2023, except current associate transport minister Kiritapu Allan is showing less interest in dealing with the Niagara than her predecessors.

While previous ministers wanted answers to the most basic questions - how much oil is on board, and what is the risk of it spilling - Allan doesn't even support a preliminary survey of the wreck to find these answers, and hasn't made a new budget bid.

"Given the uncertainty over what oil may remain on the wreck, and the significant risk of disturbing the wreck and causing a spill in trying to determine this, the Government has no current plans to attempt any oil removal from the wreck," Allan says.

When asked what grounds there were for claiming there was "significant risk" of disturbance and causing an oil spill merely by conducting an initial survey, Allan said Maritime NZ had received independent advice from salvors.

But Stuff thas confirmed the last time Maritime NZ received advice from salvors about the Niagara was the London Offshore Consultants (LOC) report in July 2018.

That was the same report that at that time led to Maritime NZ recommending a survey be carried out, and government ministers attempting to get Budget money for the work.

While some of the 2018 LOC report has been redacted by the government, nothing publicly released mentions a "significant risk" of causing an oil spill, due to conducting a survey.

In fact, the LOC report called for further investigation, "in order to make a thorough assessment of the general condition and integrity of the wreck".

Moreover, a separate Maritime NZ briefing paper to ministers in March 2018 stated, "non-intrusive survey activity poses very little risk of disturbing the wreck," and noted various techniques that might allow this to happen.

Beyond this, it simply said any intrusive activity would need to be very carefully considered due to the risks of oil spillage.

It's unclear what has changed between 2018 when Maritime NZ supported a survey of the Niagara, based on salvors' advice, and now, when its advice to Allan is that a survey is too risky.

When Stuff initially contacted Maritime NZ about the Niagara, its media advisor responded by laughing, saying the issue had been well traversed in the past.

Maritime NZ has failed to provide material requested under the Official Information Act in the required 20 working days, and has directed all questions to Minister Allan.

Allan says expert advice "indicates that wrecks deteriorate over time, and that any invasive survey work and/or oil recovery operations pose a risk of causing a release of oil."

However, she fails to explain why, if the wreck is obviously so fragile that drilling small holes in it could cause an oil spill, it won't simply completely collapse at any time, due to corrosion, currents, earthquakes or storms, and spill any remaining oil in a totally uncontrolled manner.

To those who see the Niagara as a disaster waiting to happen, the refusal to act by Allan and Maritime NZ leaves them incredulous.

But the real reason is intimated in another response from Allan, when asked why she hadn't sought funding for a survey of the Niagara.

"The previous budget (sic) were unsuccessful because of funding pressures at that time.

"These pressures still exist, and the Government is focused on bread and butter issues, and supporting Kiwis during a cost of living crisis."

But such reasoning staggers those who are simply seeking to avert a potential environmental catastrophe.

For comparison, 333 tonnes of oil washed ashore when the Rena hit a reef near Tauranga in 2011. It cost around $47 million just for the cleanup.

A 2018 report estimated the direct cost of an oil spill from the Niagara could be as high as $108 million, depending on how much oil was on board.

In addition, the long-term cost to wildlife, tourism, the local economy, and our environmental reputation would be incalculable.

Maritime NZ's unsuccessful funding bids for an initial survey of the Niagara were for $4.1 - $6.6 million in 2019, and just $850,000 - $1.6 million in 2020. Experts agree the work is entirely feasible, and could be done for under $5 million.

Critics say this would at least clarify whether there was a risk of an oil spill, and they point to numerous examples around the world where leaking WWII-era wrecks, approaching "peak-leak" due to corrosion, have been surveyed and had oil removed.

Keith Gordon, one of New Zealand's foremost shipwreck experts, was part of the oil recovery from the similarly-sized President Coolidge wreck in Vanuatu.

He has also explored the Niagara with remote operated vehicles, and written a book about the wreck, and says New Zealand has the equipment and expertise needed to ascertain what oil remains on board.

Bureaucrats and politicians had no understanding of shipwrecks, Gordon says, citing Allan's bizarre claim the Niagara "has remained undisturbed on the Hauraki Gulf seafloor since being sunk" - ignoring major structural damage from two salvage operations that used explosives to access the ship's gold; storms and earthquakes; and fishing trawlers.

"What they've seen in the movies is about as far as their knowledge goes.

"The government doesn't want to 'disturb the wreck' - how are they going to control all the other factors disturbing the wreck? Are they going to control time, nature, and the ocean?"

Gordon stresses it isn't a case of if, but when, the Niagara collapses, releasing its oil into a major shipping lane, precious marine areas, and Northland's coastline.

Even Maritime NZ in its 2018 briefing paper was clear about the environmental risk: "As a heavy fuel oil, the oil will be challenging to clean up, resistant to dispersant, and slow to break down.

"A large-scale release of oil would spread widely in the area, and potentially severely impact marine wildlife, including important seabird species."

It suggested some protection measures, like booms, could be ineffective and "some of the shorelines would be challenging to clear up without causing significant damage."

Of major concern is the effect on the critically endangered fairy tern, which has a population of around 40.

Three of its four breeding areas would be threatened by an oil spill.

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The critically endangered fairy tern, which would be threatened if the Niagara caused an oil spill. Photo: DOC

Nicola MacDonald, co-chair of the Hauraki Gulf Forum, and chief executive of Ngāti Manuhiri, one of the mana whenua of the area, says the blinkers needed to be ripped off the government and its agencies, so they could start seeing the Niagara problem for what it is.

"I believe we're right on the brink of what could be our worst ever environmental disaster."

MacDonald, who also chairs Auckland's Conservation Board, says she can't understand why there's no government action on the Niagara.

"But when it comes to the ocean, all successive governments have been appalling. Because if you can't see it - out of sight, out of mind."

Nyree Manuel, the Northland Conservation Board's chairperson, says authorities are playing Russian roulette with the disintegrating Niagara.

"We're dodging bullets, mate."

She wants an explanation from new conservation minister and Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime why the government isn't acting, and has already begun discussions with her.

"Which is more than the kōrero we did not get with our last minister, Kiritapu (Allan)."

Prime said the issue was being handled by Maritime NZ, but repeated the government's stance that doing anything to the wreck risked oil being released.

Manuel, who has also held discussions with iwi groups, says her message to Allan and Prime was simple: If we don't pay for a survey now, the cost of a cleanup when the Niagara inevitably breaks up will be far, far worse.

"A $5 million outlay compared to a $50 million outlay? Doesn't take a genius to figure that one out.

"Just do something. Have a plan."

Equally bemused by Allan's argument that it's preferable to do nothing than try to gauge the scale of the risk, is heritage archaeology worker Tim Moon of Waiheke Island, who helped organise April's Hauraki Gulf Forum meeting.

"I'm actually a bit stumped, because I'm a person of commonsense.

"The commonsense is, investigate this thoroughly, determine the risk, then act appropriately. But commonsense doesn't play in politics."

Moon, who describes the Hauraki Gulf as his beloved backyard, can't understand why the government will only act when there's an oil spill.

"We have a 100-year-old vessel that's been sitting on the bottom of the ocean for 80-odd years.

"It's a tin can. It's rusting away. And it will haemorrhage.

"It's going to take very, very little to burst this thing open - and then we have an ecological disaster."

Like everyone, Moon stresses it's the government's responsibility to deal with the Niagara, and says it has resources, like the Navy, that could help.

But remarkably, the government is turning its back on a crucial potential source of help - Germany.

Stuff asked the German Embassy if its government would contribute to, or pay for, an initial survey of the Niagara, and the removal of oil if needed.

Deputy head of mission Michael Feiner responded that, "Germany will consider providing support within its possibilities once the New Zealand Government approaches us with a request to that effect."

However, Kiri Allan says the government has not approached Germany, "and has no plans to do so at this stage".

Minister of Conservation visiting workers removing wilding pines in Craigie Burn

Former conservation minister Eugenie Sage failed in two bids for funding to survey how much oil was on the Niagara, and what risk it posed to the environment. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Green Party conservation spokesperson, and former conservation minister, Eugenie Sage is nonplussed at Allan's stance.

"If the German government is open to a request, then the government should be making that approach."

Pete Mesley, who knows the Niagara's situation better than nearly anyone, having dived on it over 20 years, is equally astounded New Zealand's government is ignoring Germany's offer of help.

"What the hell, man? What do we need to do?"

Mesley, who describes the Niagara as "the Mt Everest of New Zealand shipwreck diving", has seen oil leaking from the hulk firsthand, with a putrid film floating on the surface above it.

"Oh my god, the smell of bunker oil is unmistakable - it's not pleasant stuff."

When disasters happened, decision makers always panicked and said, 'Oh, if only we knew beforehand,' says Mesley. But the risks of the Niagara had been signalled for decades.

"Some people say, well, let's just wait and see. If there is an ecological disaster, we'll just bag the dead birds, and clean up the shit off the beaches, and it'll dissipate, and after a few years, no one will care.

"But the fact is, it's a lot worse than that. And I just think we have to focus on getting the time bomb sorted out, or at the very least, surveyed properly.

"And then we can say, 'Is this a major threat or isn't it?'

"We just don't know the answers yet. So wouldn't it be prudent to actually get some answers first?"

*This story was originally published by Stuff

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