`Empress' oil spill is worst in 30 years

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The Sea Empress oil spill could kill more than 10,000 seabirds. Yesterday it became clear that it was Britain's worst environmental disaster since the Torrey Canyon sinking off Cornwall in 1967, and may yet prove to be even more damaging.

Yesterday afternoon, 1,100 oiled seabirds had been rescued along the Pembrokeshire coast and were receiving treatment. Almost all had come ashore on Saturday, Sunday and yesterday, weakened and sick.

A further 140 had been picked up on the island of Lundy, 40 miles away, or on the north coast of Devon across the Bristol Channel. At least 300 had been found dead on the beaches.

Biologists usually estimate that for each dead bird found, another nine are never recovered. Wildlife conservation and rescue organisations believe hundreds more birds, alive and dead, will come ashore during this week.

The Countryside Council for Wales said aerial surveys had shown 120 miles of coastline had been significantly polluted, much of it in Britain's only coastal national park. It was already clear that it would do far more harm than the Braer oil spill in Shetland in 1993.

Some 700 of the rescued birds were scoter ducks. About 10,000 - half the British population - winter in nearby Carmarthen Bay, which has been heavily oiled.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hopes to open a major wildlife hospital for oiled seabirds today. The oiled birds need about two weeks of intensive cleaning, rest and recuperation before they can be released back into the wild.

One of the RSPCA's main worries is that the local sea and mudflats might still be heavily polluted when the birds are ready to be freed.

At the weekend the society converted an empty warehouse on an industrial estate in Steynton, just outside Milford Haven in Dyfed, into a hospital. Portable gas heaters, cleaning tanks and hot and cold running water have been installed. It will have about 15 staff. It also has to find a site where it can create large pools of clean seawater with nets over the top, for the cleaned and fed birds to regain their strength.

Stephen Mulholland, the RSPCA's regional manager, accused some officials of failing to tell the truth last week about the extent of the oil spill. "It is already clear that the spill is substantially larger than so far stated by the authorities and that its effects will be considerably greater than any present official predictions. The carefully stage-managed press briefings by officials were either naive or designed to mislead."

A smaller tankerhas already taken one 25,000 ton load of oil off the Sea Empress and carried it to the nearby Texaco refinery. There are still two more loads to come, and the process will take the rest of the week. But the Government's Marine Pollution Control Unit said no more oil was leaking.