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Maritime New Zealand, Graeme Brown) EDITORIAL USE ONLY, Associated Press
In this Dec. 9, 2011, photo provided by Maritime New Zealand, the cargo ship Rena is hard aground after running full-steam into a well-charted reef off the coast near Tauranga, New Zealand on a calm night on Oct. 5.Australian inspection records show that a cargo ship that ran aground off New Zealand in October had previous safety issues.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — When an Australian ship inspector took a close look at a metal pin securing cargo on the Rena, he realized it wasn't an original. It was too thin and had no tab to keep it from falling out. Then he discovered that cleats securing the hatch could be removed with a single finger.

Those were just two of 17 safety problems Tim Jordan and other inspectors found when the cargo ship docked in western Australia in July. Someone had tampered with an alarm. The navigation manuals were out of date. The data recorder was still wrapped in its canvas.

The violations are described in records obtained by The Associated Press under Australian freedom of information laws. Inspection reports, emails and faxes tell the story of how Australia impounded the Greek-owned vessel, which like many ships is registered in Liberia, but then released it the next day after Liberian maritime authorities intervened, essentially saying the ship was safe to sail and the problems could be fixed later.

On a calm night 10 weeks later, the Rena ran full-steam into a well-charted reef off the coast of New Zealand. It spilled 400 tons of oil, killing 2,000 sea birds and fouling pristine beaches in the country's worst-ever maritime environmental disaster. In the two months since then, 89 cargo containers have fallen off the still-listing ship, some washing up on beaches 100 miles away.

Whether or not the problems found in July contributed to the navigational error in October or the subsequent loss of cargo, experts say the Australian records paint a picture of an aging ship in poor repair and highlight a dangerous cost-cutting culture under the so-called flag-of-convenience system.

"They nickel-and-dime things, they don't do proper maintenance, they don't pay the crews to do repairs, and they don't have enough spare parts on board," said Harry Bolton, the director of marine programs at the California Maritime Academy, who assessed the records for the AP.

Pioneered by American shipowners in the 1920s to skirt Prohibition-era restrictions on serving and shipping alcohol, the system of registering ships in another country's name has become a way for shipping companies in wealthier countries to avoid taxes and employ cheap labor.

Critics say it has also lowered safety standards on ships, but the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency that regulates shipping, says most flag-of-convenience countries act responsibly and follow international protocols.

Annual reports by the U.S. Coast Guard show that flag-of-convenience vessels are consistently found with more safety problems than other ships. Among the worst performers last year were ships flying flags from Sierra Leone, Bolivia, the Cook Islands and Saint Kitts and Nevis, which were detained by U.S. port authorities at rates between nine and 40 times the average.

"It's all about saving money and dodging responsibility for seafarers," said Dean Summers, the Australia coordinator for the International Transport Workers' Federation, which has campaigned against flags of convenience for more than 50 years.

Liberia is considered to be among the more responsible flag-of-convenience nations thanks to the international shipping treaties it has signed. It performed better than average in the Coast Guard rankings, though in Australia, it was the sixth-worst performer of 58 visiting flag nations last year.

The West African nation is the third-poorest country in the world with a per-capita GDP of $500 a year. Yet on paper at least, Liberia has the world's second-largest shipping fleet, behind only Panama, another flag-of-convenience nation.

The 774-foot Rena typifies a modern-day cargo ship. Built in 1989, it's owned by a company in Greece, chartered by another in Switzerland, employs a Filipino crew and is subject to Liberian shipping rules. This year it began plying its trade in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.

Costamare, the owner, declined to go into details about the problems identified in Australia but pointed out that the ship eventually passed all inspections. "We know that the vessel complied with all necessary regulatory requirements," the company wrote in an emailed statement.

Two weeks before the Rena arrived at the Australian port of Fremantle on July 21, authorities in Shenzhen, China, found 18 problems with the ship but allowed it to sail on.

Inspectors from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority detained the ship in Fremantle, a serious step reserved for about one in every 18 foreign vessels. They cited problems with the securing of the hatch and the shipping containers and the overall lack of maintenance.

Later emails from the Australian inspectors show they worried the cargo might not remain secure in rough weather.

Crew members fixed some problems quickly. They got hold of updated navigation manuals, which alert mariners of what to expect en route. The crew also removed a delay mechanism that had been wired into a bilge alarm, which alerts them if oil is being pumped overboard with water that collects in the bottom of the ship. The ship's electrician could not explain why the delay mechanism had been added, according to inspection reports.

For other problems, the captain turned to the Liberia Bureau of Maritime Affairs, which contracts with an American company to run its ship registry.

The Virginia-based office sent the captain a series of faxes on July 21 granting the ship one-month exemptions for some of the problems. Australian authorities could have overruled the exemptions but elected not to.

Records show Australian inspectors were particularly concerned with the rusted and improperly tensioned hatch cleats and the ill-fitting pins for the cargo.

In one email to colleagues, inspector Dave Anderson said the exemption didn't cite any evidence for the strength of the modified lashing equipment. "Any old bit of bar made into a 'pin' will do as long as the originals are 'not available...........,'" he wrote, ending with an extended ellipsis.

Colleague Naweed Omar added that a photo of one of the modified pins "is not very convincing."

While letting the ship depart, Australia also gave it three months to demonstrate that its safety system was in compliance. The Rena would run aground before the deadline was up.

"There are always concerns," said Mal Larsen, a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. "But ultimately, the guys on the ground, the inspectors, found it was acceptable."

Scott Bergeron, an American who is chief executive of the Liberian ship registry, said the requests for exemptions weren't unusual. He likened it to authorities giving a motorist a month to get a broken headlight fixed rather than impounding the car.

He said the detention of the Rena raised red flags in his office and that Liberian inspectors boarded the ship two weeks later in Sydney to make their own assessment. In his opinion, he said, the owners of the ship are generally good operators but the Rena "needed to tidy up its operation."

The ship passed subsequent inspections by Australian authorities in Melbourne and Sydney.

But on Sept. 28, inspectors in the New Zealand port of Bluff found 19 problems on the ship, though none were considered serious enough to prevent the Rena from sailing. New Zealand's maritime agency hasn't released those records, although it characterized them on its website as a follow-up to see if the Rena had resolved the problems found in China.

One week later, at 2 a.m. on Oct. 5, the Rena was traveling at high speed when it ran aground on the Astrolabe reef near the port of Tauranga. The reef has been identified on charts for almost 200 years.

Bergeron said the inspection problems identified in China, Australia and New Zealand are an important part of the Liberian agency's probe into the accident.

"There was gross navigational error on the part of the onboard crew," Bergeron said. "But there are likely to be many reasons why it got to that point. It could be external influences, or that the crew was not properly rested."

The captain and the navigating officer face criminal charges of operating a ship in a dangerous or risky manner, polluting the environment and altering the ship's documents after the crash. Maritime New Zealand, which is conducting its own investigation, rejected an AP request for transcripts of interviews with the captain and crew, saying it could prejudice the criminal case.

Salvage crews are continuing the painstaking task of removing more than 1,000 20-foot (6-meter) and 40-foot (12-meter) containers that remain on the crippled ship, which still sits on the reef, grinding in the swells and threatening to break apart. Three more containers fell off in recent days.

Summers, the union representative, said it's time countries did more to grow and protect their domestic fleets rather than rely on flag-of-convenience vessels, which now account for more than half the world's merchant fleet.

"It's more expensive," he said. "But we need to pay a premium to protect our coastline."