`Empress' spill fires fight over dirty fuel

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The Independent Online
The Government has been asked to intervene in plans to import and burn what has been described as the world's dirtiest fuel in a Welsh power station.

The Countryside Council for Wales, the Government's statutory adviser on conservation in the principality, has written to the Department of Trade and Industry urging a public inquiry into the proposals to convert Pembroke Power Station to burn Orimulsion. The move comes after two years of investigations into the plans to burn up to 5 million tonnes a year of the South American bituminous fuel, described by some environmentalists as "the fuel from hell".

Under the original plans put forward by National Power, the Orimulsion would be imported through Milford Haven, the area hit by the disaster caused when the Sea Empress ran aground and spilled its cargo of oil.

That incident highlighted the sensitivity of an area which boasts four special conservation and protection areas and where wildlife gems alone include 10 per cent of the world's population of gannets and half the European breeding population of the Manx Shearwater.

Environmentalists maintain that the emulsion fuel from Venezuela is even more difficult to clear up than crude oil when it is spilt and that is poses an unacceptable risk. It is also claimed that so-called "gender- bender" chemicals used to help emulsify the bitumen mimic the effects of oestrogen, which in experiments have made male fish produce female protein. Friends of the Earth says that the planned Orimulsion imports would bring in 10,000 tonnes a year of these chemicals.

In a statement yesterday, the Countryside Commission said it had spent two years in discussions with the developer and the regulatory authorities, and had sought improvements in pollution control, and guarantees against the environmental consequences of accidents.

"During this period, the Sea Empress disaster occurred, throwing considerable doubt on the assurances that had been given over marine safety and reinforcing scientists' opinion over the risk to the marine environment in the area," said the statement.

The CCW said it had been asked to comment on draft conditions attached to the proposal to burn the fuel, and Dr Malcolm Smith, CCW's director of policy and science, said: "Our most significant single concern - the effects of a spill of emulsified oil products - cannot be resolved by such conditions.

"The issue is whether the risks and consequences of an environmental catastrophe can be understood and controlled to the point where they are acceptable in view of the outstanding importance and fragility of the marine environment in this area, and its extremely high recreation and tourism interests.

"It seems unlikely that these issues can be fully explored and resolved by further discussions with the developer, and the CCW considers that the only way in which these issues can be fully aired and properly resolved is through a public inquiry."

Environmental groups have consistently opposed the plans to burn Orimulsion. Margaret Minhinnick, director of Sustainable Wales, said: "The plans involve transporting this fuel from Venezuela, with the risks of spillages, and then burning it in a power station which will result in a significant increase in particle release into the environment and worsening the acid rain problem in Wales."

The National Rivers Authority warned in a report five years ago that it would be far more difficult to control an Orimulsion spill than one involving oil.