Pollution experts in bid to save coastline

Oil spillage: Birds and mammals at risk as inquiries begin into how Liberian tanker ran aground off Wales
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Pollution experts on land, sea and in the air were battling yesterday to save one of Britain's most sensitive stretches of coastline from a 4,000-tonne oil slick.

Aircraft with dispersants were brought in to tackle the spill off Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire after a 147,000-tonne supertanker ran aground, threatening bird, seal and dolphin populations.

According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Liberian- registered Sea Empress could not have become grounded at a more sensitive location. The five-mile long slick off St Anne's Head at the mouth of the Cleddau estuary, is threatening colonies of gannet, fulmar, shag, puffin and cormorant, as well as large numbers of porpoise, dolphin and Atlantic grey seal.

The Sea Empress ran aground on its way into Milford Haven on Thursday night, even though a port authority pilot was aboard.

Yesterday, Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, flew over the scene and said he believed the accident was caused by a steering or power failure, but Captain Peter Cooney, managing director of Glasgow- based Acomarit (UK), which manages the ship, said: "There was no problem with the steering gear or with the propeller system. The vessel was maintained to the highest standards."

As inquiries into the accident began in earnest, a 30,000-tonne tanker, the Star Bergen, was expected to be moved from Milford Haven alongside the Sea Empress to take on some of its 136,000-tonne cargo of light crude oil.

Members of the Department of Transport's marine pollution control unit flew in seven Dakota aircraft to spray dispersant on the five-mile long slick. On the ground, a small army of people began scooping up oil while teams with vacuum pumps waited for smaller slicks to reach shore.

David Thomas, a member of the joint-response team set up to tackle the spill, said hopes were given a boost yesterday afternoon when the wind direction shifted from north easterly to south easterly, blowing the oil away from the marine nature reserve of Skomer and the islands of Skokholm and Grassholm.

"So far, there have been no reports of dead or oiled birds or seals," he said. "The wind is blowing the slick away from the islands outside the estuary and into a position where spraying with dispersants is more likely to be effective."

Nevertheless, it was estimated that 200 tonnes of oil had landed on a beach at Freshwater West and a number of salt marshes were being threatened. Almost the entire Pembroke shire coastline is a national park with more than 100 miles of sanctuaries and areas of special marine interest.

Derek Lloyd of Texaco, which was to have received the Sea Empress's cargo said the tanker had been refloated and towed out into deeper water. It was surrounded by booms, but was not thought to be leaking any more oil, he said. "Everyone is hopeful that we can contain the ship and take all the cargo off," he said. "We are confident that an environmental tragedy can be averted."

The incident has renewed calls for new tankers to be built with double hulls. Last October, the supertanker Borga ran aground in similar circumstances but a spill was averted because it had a double hull. In his report on the Braer oil spillage in the Shetland Isles, Lord Donaldson agreed that double hulls could avert some leaks, but he said it could not be guaranteed.