Golden age returning to polluted sands

'Sea Empress' legacy: Threat of catastrophe almost averted, though oil slick danger could imperil recovery
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As Pembrokeshire's main tourist season opened this weekend, the biggest fear about the Sea Empress oil disaster was fear itself.

Fear that visitors from England would stay away this half-term and in the summer; fear that the oil, although now largely invisible, would continue to poison the area's seas and coast.And fear that the long, uneasy accommodation between the dominant oil industry and the fishing and tourist trades had broken down for good.

Officialdom says the problems caused by 70,000 tonnes of North Sea crude which poured from the supertanker into and around Milford Haven in February have largely disappeared, thanks to an intensive, multi-million pound clean-up and nature's capacity for self-healing. Compensation is coming through for the people and the businesses which were harmed. Things are almost back to normal.

The speed and scale of the recovery from the horrors of three months ago are astonishing. Once again, Britain's only coastal national park, which also has mainland Britain's biggest tanker port, looks clean and beautiful.

Just as happens every summer, the islands of Skomer and Skokholm are now teaming with squawking sea birds, nesting on cliffs in a way that makes them look like over-crowded tower blocks.

Mainland beaches which looked like tar pits at the end of February are now golden. Rock pools, once covered by thick oil, have limpets, seaweed and sea anemones festooning their sides.

Last week the Welsh Office allowed fishermen to start catching fin fish once more. And Pembrokeshire County Council joined with Dyfed Powys Health Authority and the Environment Agency to declare that the sea was safe to swim in.

But not quite, for the oil keeps coming back in small doses. High tides and waves pluck it off the cliff-bottom rocks and beaches where it has lain for weeks, inaccessible to the clean-up crews.

Locals praise the council's promptness in spotting and mopping up these continuing, sporadic outbreaks. But if they carry on through the summer, then much of the hard cleaning work will have been in vain.

And while fish can once again be caught in the fisheries exclusion zone imposed after the disaster, the prohibition on molluscs and crustacea - more important to local fishermen - remains in force indefinitely. Levels of oil in these creatures are still too high for human consumption.

These continuing problems are no surprise; this was a huge spill by any standards with damage on the same scale as that done by the wrecking of the Torrey Canyon 30 years ago.

The number of seabird corpses washed up, more than 4,600, was about three times as many as for the 1993 Braer oil spill in Shetland. Around 20,000 birds are thought to have died.

Bobby King, vice chairman of the South Pembrokeshire Hotels and Restaurants Association, is determinedly optimistic. His 13-room hotel in Tenby was fully booked for this weekend and the beaches looked great. The memories of last March - "the phone stopped ringing for a whole month" - are receding.

But he grumbles at the expense of promoting the coast's comeback. The trade had hoped for a star visit, but was put off by the fees. "Noel Edmonds wanted pounds 30,000," he said.

Nearby, in the beautiful, upmarket seaside village of Manobier, a hotelier who did not want to be named was less cheery. "We're very unsure about this summer," he said. "I just wish no one would talk about the oil at all, that would be the best thing."

That morning, traces of oil had appeared on the beach there and been cleaned away. "They said the sea's safe for swimming but I'm not sure I'd want my kids in the water," he said. "But the surfers were back here today and it was good to see them."

Dozens of biologists will be monitoring the coastline's rich and diverse marine life for years to come, to see what harm was done.

Dr Peter Dyrynda, of Swansea University, will be submitting the first proper biological assessment to the World Wide Fund for Nature in the next few weeks.

"What struck me at first was how many things had survived severe oiling," he said. "But it's very easy to be falsely reassured. I'm sure many of the smaller, delicate things will have gone and not be back for years."

David Bray, secretary of the local fishermen's association, was looking forward to going back to sea today for the first time since the spill. But, like most locals, he is unwilling to forgive or forget, and resents the Government's refusal to hold a public inquiry into the spill.

It began with a botched entry into the haven and was exacerbated by a bungled salvage operation. The official report from the Government's Marine Accident Investigation Branch will not be published until late this year at the earliest.

"What a farce, what a circus," said Mr Bray. "I don't think people will ever really get over it."

The spill has transformed a local campaign against the proposed burning of Orimulsion, a cheap mix of heavy oil and water from Venezuela, at National Power's Pembroke power station.

Since the Sea Empress hit the rocks, there has been much more concern about the three extra tanker movements a month in the harbour that the project would bring about, and about its impact on air quality. Mistrust with anything to do with oil has grown.

"You don't have to belong to Friends of the Earth to oppose it," said Mr Bray. "The rank and file just don't want it."