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Marine, river and stream oil spills

Photograph of an oil spill response team in action at a beach in Thames

Marine oil spills

Marine oil spills are potential human-made hazards that threaten the coastal marine areas of the Waikato region. They can range from small spills from recreational boats to larger, more serious oil spills from commercial vessels passing through our waters.

Marine oil spills can cause serious damage to our coastal environments and the animal and plant life living in them.

Waikato Regional Council works with other agencies to prevent and plan for marine oil spills so we can minimise the impact these incidents may have on our environment.

If you spill oil anywhere in the marine environment you are responsible for:

  • cleaning up the spill
  • any costs involved in cleaning up the spill
  • immediately notifying Waikato Regional Council's Marine Oil Spills Response Team on freephone 0800 800 401 - no matter how big or small the spill is.

How marine oil spills happen

Most marine oil spills in the Waikato region are from pleasure boats refuelling at wharves, jetties, or marinas. Often they are minor and require little or no cleaning up. More serious spills may happen from large commercial vessels passing near the Coromandel Peninsula.

Diesel is the fuel most often spilt. Larger vessels that use diesel fill up while on the water. Spills are most often caused by:

  • faulty dispensers or pumps
  • operator inattention
  • pumping contaminated bilge water overboard
    • automated bilge pumps must be turned off if there is a possibility of pumping oil-contaminated water overboard in excess of 15 parts of oil per million parts of water
    • use a filter and/or oil sorbent material to remove oil from bilge water
  • a leaking fuel tank
  • vessel groundings
  • accidents with other boats
  • careless transfer of oil when using containers
  • overfilling of tanks (as the fuel temnperature rises in hot weather, the fuel will expand and can be blown out of the tank breathers if insufficient expansion room is allowed).

Cleaning up oil spills

Under the Maritime Transport Act 1994, Waikato Regional Council prepares for marine oil spills in our region's coastal marine areas and responds to them should they occur.

Marine oil spills that require a response from Waikato Regional Council are dealt with by our Marine Oil Spills Response Team.

Oil spills that happen in freshwater such as lakes and rivers, are responded to by our Incident Response Team.

In large spills, our marine and freshwater response teams will work together with other agencies.

Response levels

In New Zealand, marine oil spill response is classified into three tiers or levels as follows:

  • Tier 1 - the spiller is known and is able to respond adequately to the spill. All industries with oil refuelling sites along the shoreline must have a contingency plan approved by Waikato Regional Council to deal with spills. Tier 1 operators must be able to effectively respond to an oil spill at their site. Click here if you wish to submit a contingency plan to us for approval.
  • Tier 2 - a spill is within the council’s territorial sea boundary (less than 12 nautical miles), the spiller (if known) is unable to deal with the spill, and the council is able to adequately respond to the spill.
  • Tier 3 - a spill is outside the council’s territorial sea boundary (more than 12 nautical miles) but within the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). If the spill is beyond the resources of the council, Maritime New Zealand is requested by the council to take over responsibility.

These response levels are also detailed here, in this PDF [PDF, 354 KB].

What we are doing

Waikato Regional Council has prepared a Marine Oil Spill Contingency Plan which is approved every three years by Maritime New Zealand.

The plan outlines how we can:

  • reduce the impacts of a marine oil spill
  • effectively respond to an incident using trained personnel and specialised equipment
  • help restore any damage to the environment resulting from the spill
  • contain and recover marine oil spills
  • protect sensitive sites.

We also carry out regular separate and combined training exercises involving our Marine Oil Spill Response and Incident Response teams.

Under the Maritime Transport Act 1994, Waikato Regional Council can prosecute individuals or organisations who cause a marine oil spill in our coastal marine areas. Freshwater spills are dealt with under the Resource Management Act 1991.

What you can do

Reduce the chance of an oil spill occurring:

  • Don't leaving the fuel pump unattended when refuelling.
  • Have clean-up material handy during refuelling.
  • Regularly check fuel lines and tanks for faults.
  • Ensure bilges are kept as oil-free as possible, esepcially if using automated bilge-pumping systems.

If you have a spill, make sure you report it as soon as possible. Call Waikato Regional Council's freephone 0800 800 401.

Spills less than two litres do not necessarily need to be cleaned up, but you will still need to keep a close eye on them and report them to Waikato Regional Council.  

Clean up or control larger spills using:

  • oil absorbing material such as 'pillows' or 'pads', which can be wrung out into a container and reused
  • absorbent booms
  • products that break up the oil, for example, oil dispersants.

Different clean-up methods suit different situations - check with Waikato Regional Council first. You can buy oil spill cleanup material from marine hardware merchants or call Waikato Regional Council's freephone 0800 800 401 for advice.

The Ministry for the Environment and Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) have also produced ‘Every drop counts’, a pamphlet which has information on preventing and cleaning up fuel and oil spills.

>>> Read more about your responsibilities when operating an oil transfer site, or refuelling [PDF, 496 KB]

More information

You can view and order Waikato Regional Council's publications on oil spill issues and management

Useful links

Civil Defence Waikato

Maritime New Zealand