and STEVE BOGGAN
Britain was last night on the edge of its biggest oil pollution disaster since the Torrey Canyon as a political row broke out over the operation to keep the supertanker Sea Empress off the rocks of west Wales.
The government was accused of rank complacency when an MP claimed in the House of Commons that the ship had leaked up to 50,000 tonnes of oil simply because not enough tugs were available to control it.
Salvors last night braved heavy seas in a bold attempt to move the vessel to safer waters, where it was intended to begin off-loading part of its 138,000-tonne cargo of light crude oil on to another tanker.
However, the operation was overshadowed by claims that the pollution- control team fighting the eight-mile slick had not been given the tools to do the job. Nick Ainger, MP for Pembroke, said an adviser to Sir George Young, the Transport Secretary, had confirmed that only 400 tonnes of tug pulling power had been available to withstand the 800 tonnes exerted by the 147,000 tonne Sea Empress as it grounded again and again off the mouth of Milford Haven, Britain's biggest oil terminal and the site of protected bird, seal and dolphin populations.
The rescue team last night rejected Mr Ainger's claims, but the Labour MP said the Government had been warned of the shortage by Lord Donaldson of Lymington in his report on the Braer oil spillage in the Shetland Isles in January 1993.
"I have been told that not enough pulling power has been available and that the tanker has been pulling the tugs - my sources have told me it has been on and off the rocks at least 10 times," he said. "Lord Donaldson said he believed the Government needed to set up a system to ensure tugs with sufficient salvage capacity were available at strategic points around the UK shores, but that does not seem to have been done.
"He warned that there was a shortage of salvage tugs because, thankfully, vessels run aground less these days, so they are not commercially viable. The Government should have provided back-up but it didn't." There has been criticism and consternation among environmentalists since the tanker ran aground last Thursday night over the inability of the salvage team to stabilise the vessel and offload some of its cargo, which had been destined for the Texaco oil refinery in Milford Haven. "Now we have had a simple explanation of why they couldn't do it and it has made me very angry," said Mr Ainger.
David Thomas, a spokesman for the joint response centre dealing with the crisis said nine tugs were working at the scene and there had been "no problem" in finding them. However, figures given to the Independent suggested they had a total pulling power of only 680 tonnes.
As oil began spilling on to the island of Skomer, where seabirds are due to begin nesting next month, salvage experts began the operation to move the Sea Empress on what will be the last very high tide for four weeks.
The government team responsible for the rescue operation denied it had failed to respond adequately. Lord Goschen, shipping minister, said workers had faced terrible obstacles including gale force winds and storms.
Although Lord Goschen stressed the plan to move the vessel carried risk, he said experts believed it would start to break up if not controlled and moved to safety.
He said: "We believe this is the best chance given the weather conditions, coming up to high tide, and the state of the vessel for coming to a successful conclusion."
The Sea Empress was lurching perilously close to the cliffs at St Ann's Head, near Milford Haven, yesterday, and creaking in the wind. A stream of crude oil continued to flow from the hull, transforming the white waves to thick brown foam.
An Anglo-Dutch team of 18 salvors were on board, attempting to repair the pump and hydraulic systems.
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