Hoping for nature's helping hand

Environmentalists believe only stormy weather can disperse the slick effectively, write James Cusick and Rebecca Fowler
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Authorities co-ordinating the massive clean-up operation to deal with the 70,000 tonnes of crude oil which spewed from the hull of the Sea Empress, yesterday said: "We are praying for a storm."

Relatively calm weather allowed the stricken tanker to be towed safely into Milford Haven, where operations began yesterday to pump off the remaining 60,000-tonne crude cargo.

An eight-mile long oil slick still lies off the Pembrokeshire coast and two smaller slicks lie north of St Anne's Head and continue to threaten the wildlife sanctuaries on Skokholm and Skomer islands. Dispersants continue to be sprayed on the slicks from the sea and air.

But rough weather forecast for the weekend, and favourable winds could see nature lending a hand in the clear-up, as it di in the aftermath of the Braer disaster.

Around Skomer Island yesterday, one of the finest sanctuaries for auks in Europe, 12 dolphins and porpoises were spotted swimming through water contaminated by oil.

So far, the coastline has been protected from the bulk of the oil spillage by winds which have kept it at sea, but a change in the weather this weekend may disturb the movement of the oil that covers a 25-mile area.

Environmentalists are concerned that heavy use of chemical dispersants sprayed over the oil may yet do serious damage.

Dr Sian Pullen, marine conservation officer for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: "The best way to break up these slicks is to let the elements do it naturally. Ideally, we hope the tide will continue to keep it offshore."

She added: "This is still an ecological disaster. It's the toxicity of the oil that is devastating, and these are among the most important beaches in the country."

Although casualties have been relatively low, the real impact on wildlife is impossible to assess immediately.

Phil Rothwell, head of policy for the RSPB, said: "Only 20 per cent of the oiled birds come into shore. We'll only really get a picture of what the toll is next year when we see how many come back to breed."

As the authorities battled against the oil damage, lawyers arrived in the area to evaluate the levels of environmental compensation. Liability for accidents is limited as a result of two international agreements, the 1969 Civil Liability Convention and the 1971 Fund Convention. The 56 signatory states to these conventions (including Britain) agreed to a system under which the maximum the owner of the tanker (or his insurers) has to pay in compensation is just over pounds 10m.

This is topped up to a maximum of about pounds 55m by means of a levy imposed on oil buyers - mostly the big oil companies - as and when necessary.

t An indication of the huge cost of the Sea Empress clean-up operation came from Shetland yesterday, where the local council revealed that it spent pounds 25,000 clearing up less than one tonne of crude oil which washed ashore last month, contaminating remote beaches.

The Shetland slick struck south-eastern shores of the main island, killing almost 200 seabirds. Environmentalists suspect the leak came from a tanker whose skipper illegally "washed out" his vessel's tanks.