But who takes the blame?

Built in Spain; owned by a Norwegian; registered in Cyprus; managed from Glasgow; chartered by the French; crewed by Russians; flying a Liberian flag; carrying an American cargo; and pouring oil on to the Welsh coast
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The Independent Online
JAMES CUSICK

PETER VICTOR

REBECCA FOWLER

As salvage teams last night succeeded in refloating the stricken Sea Empress tanker there was growing confusion over where responsibility for the disaster must finally rest.

By the end of the day, 70,000 tonnes of crude oil - more than half the ship's cargo - had poured into the sea in one of Britain's most valued environmental havens. But the inquiry into the disaster will face a tough task in unravelling the tangled web of business interests across six countries which had responsibility for the ship.

Last night, as the supertanker was towed off the rocks to the former Esso refinery jetty at Milford Haven, blame was being apportioned from many quarters. Greenpeace blamed the Prime Minister, John Major, for not implementing safety improvements recommended by Lord Donaldson after the Braer inquiry into the Shetland oil spill in January 1993.

The Labour Party blamed a system which allows ships to sail under flags of convenience, and called for Lord Donaldson's inquiry team to be reconvened. The Norwegian company which operates the ship said neither the vessel nor its Russian captain and crew could be blamed. The pilot from Milford Haven, sent out to guide the tanker safely into port, issued a statement denying "malicious" rumours "concerning the consumption of alcohol" at the time the vessel was first grounded.

Britain's Marine Accident Investigation Branch will have to examine shipping records from Cyprus, Norway, France and Scotland just to establish who owns and manages the Sea Empress. The Spanish-built tanker was carrying crude oil from the North Sea for the American multi-national Texaco. It was chartered from a French company and was sailing under a Liberian flag of convenience.

John Fredriksen, a flamboyant multi-millionaire Norwegian, who owns the vessel through a series of companies in Cyprus, issued a statement last night, saying: "The cause of the accident is not established. The vessel was technically in full order at the time of the grounding and its crew and officers were tested immediately for drugs and alcohol, and passed."

The ship's managing company in Glasgow said that although the crew was tested for drugs and alcohol, the pilot was not. The company added that it was "horrified" at any suggestion that the pilot was intoxicated. The pilot, who refused to be named, issued a statement through lawyers, saying: "Rumours concerning the consumption of alcohol are completely without foundation."

Locally there has been growing concern that pilots do not go out soon enough to meet incoming supertankers.

As the search for answers began, the vessel was finally pulled from the rocks at St Ann's Head, near Milford Haven. It was still spewing oil as tugs began towing it to a safer location, a mile from where it had run aground.

Although a 10-mile oil slick was moving away from the coast last night, changing winds and storm weather forecast for the weekend still threaten further environmental damage.

Attempts were also being made to tackle a series of smaller slicks across a 25- to 30-mile front, from Milford Haven to halfway across Carmarthen Bay, while oil was reported to have hit the island of Skomer, sanctuary to thousands of seabirds.

Bringing to an end a six-day rescue operation, a dozen tugs - with a total 750 tonnes of pulling power - finally freed the ship at high tide. There had been fears that if the ship was not refloated, she would break- up, allowing the rest of her cargo to pour straight into the sea.

About 140 tonnes of chemicals - themselves potentially damaging - were also sprayed, in wave after wave of sorties by aircraft trying to break down the giant slicks.

John Prescott, the Labour deputy leader, said last night: "When will we ever learn? Flag-of-convenience ships are the biggest threat to our environment and the safety of crews."

In the Commons, Labour's transport spokesman, Graham Allen, blamed ministers for "turning an accident into a disaster". He claimed action taken more promptly could have helped prevent an "environmental and ecological tragedy".

Mr Allen said ministers had ignored the recommendations of Lord Donaldson's report into the Braer disaster, which had called for a powerful salvage tug to be stationed in the Western Approaches.

Shipping and aviation minister Lord Goschen visited Milford Haven last night to congratulate the salvage crew. He said: "We were all very anxious to make sure everything went well." A smaller tanker, the 35,000 tonne Star Bergen, was last night standing by to be brought alongside the Sea Empress to receive some of the oil.

Last night, Keith Harrison, a retired marine engineer and former technical manager for BP, who lives near the disaster site, said he had frequently warned MPs and the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee of the possibility of a disaster.

He said: "There should have been a tug permanently on hand to escort every ship into the harbour and large enough to deal with a supertanker. The clean-up is now going to cost tens of millions of pounds, all for the sake of not having a relatively cheap tug on hand all the time."

Mr Harrison said the problem with pilots was that communication was often difficult with foreign crews: "It's all very well the captain speaking English, but the helmsman, who is actually doing the manoeuvring, sometimes doesn't and that's where you get problems. I've seen it all over the world."

Department of Transport investigators said that the main 10-mile oil slick was moving out to sea.

Wildlife catastrophe, page 3

Letters, page 18

Was it inevitable? page 19

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