Disaster threat as gales pound stricken tanker

Oil spill: Nature sanctuaries remain at risk as crew is forced to abandon ship and storms hamper operation to prevent break-up
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The Independent Online
Salvage experts went back on board the abandoned and crippled supertanker Sea Empress yesterday, while two tugs succeeded in getting tow ropes to the ship.

But late last night it was still in danger of drifting out of control, leaking oil and again facing a pounding by gales. The risk of the ship breaking up and spilling more than 100,000 tonnes of crude oil on some of Europe's finest coastal nature sanctuaries remained as high as ever.

The 147,000-tonne tanker cannot be moved into sheltered water until some 30,000 tonnes of oil have been pumped off. This pumping operation cannot take place until wind and waves abate enough to let a much smaller tanker, the Star Bergen, come alongside. Last night's forecasts indicated that may not happen until Thursday at the earliest. Transferring the oil will take one or two days.

The Liberian-registered Sea Empress is at the mercy of the sea. The ship lies at the entrance to Milford Haven, mainland Britain's busiest oil port, half a mile from Britain's only coastal national park.

Its anchor chains snapped in a gale on Saturday, and so did the tow lines from three of the six tugs attempting to hold it.

With the ship out of control and in danger of breaking up the the Russian crew and salvage experts were taken off by helicopter.

Yesterday, after the ship had steadied in slightly reduced winds, five experts from the team of three salvage companies attempting to rescue the three-year-old super tanker were dropped on board by an RAF Sea King helicopter.

They found that the vessel appeared to be salvageable, despite being further holed when its hull ground along the sea bottom. The engine-room, however, was not flooded.

But the Sea Empress, just afloat last night, lies with a heavy list. This is partly because sea water has entered the starboard oil tanks and partly because sea water was let into ballast tanks in an unsuccessful attempt to hold it steady.

The 21,000-horse power Chinese tug De Yue got a tow line on to the ship last night. It is the seventh most powerful tug in the world.

Joe Small, the government Marine Pollution Control Unit officer in charge of the operation at sea, said: "It's not under as much control as we would like."

More oil was coming ashore which had already received a slicking. But the unit believed the quantities leaking from the ship were fairly low and less than in the aftermath of the initial grounding on Thursday night.

So far less than 10 oiled birds have been rescued and the total number of corpses found is also in single figures. The survivors include three red- throated divers of which only 1,500 pairs breed in Britain.

Two nearby villages were evacuated on Saturday night because of the danger of explosive oil fumes on either side of the harbour entrance.