Rescue mounted as oil encircles Lundy

Sea Empress disaster: First stage of off-loading completed as clean-up of coast continues in south Wales and north Devon
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High winds and heavy seas over the weekend and the continuing use of dispersants have broken up the oil slick from the supertanker Sea Empress that was threatening further damage to coastlines around Pembrokeshire and north Devon.

The pollution surveillance centre monitoring the spillage said yesterday that nearly all the remaining crude in the seas around the Milford Haven oil refinery in Dyfed had now been dispersed. "Only sheen - a film of oil on the water's surface - was now visible from reconnaissance aircraft."

The centre said that although the full extent of the damage from more than 70,000 tonnes of crude oil had yet to be assessed, "it is unlikely that any more coastal areas will see further amounts of crude washed up".

As inspectors from the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch gathered evidence for the inquiry into the environmental disaster, efforts to clean- up the oil continued. Over the weekend reports from wildlife organisations showed that the damage spread from Pembrokeshire to the north Devon coast - reaching beaches at Woolacombe and Croyde - and the wildlife reserve of Lundy Island. Conservationists said oil had almost encircled Lundy.

If Lundy's coastline becomes another casualty of the disaster, two of Britain's three marine reserves will have been seriously affected. The first, Skomer island, near St Ann's Head where the tanker hit rocks, is regarded as one of Europe's most important marine wildlife habitats. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) said it was "deplorable" that Lundy had become the second Statutory Marine Nature Reserve to be hit.

Among local conservationists there is mounting anger that the official clean-up operation could be regarded as completed in "a matter of weeks rather than months". The director of the Devon Wildlife Trust, Paul Gompertz, said: " It will take two years to monitor what has happened to underwater marine life, and try to mitigate the effects."

Conservation groups in Devon have now concentrated their efforts on Lundy. They have mounted a rescue operation for seabirds amid fears that important species and habitats were still threatened. The Devon Wildlife Trust, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and English Nature have already retrieved oiled guillemots washed up on the island's beaches. "Thousands of seabirds are at risk," DWT marine conservation officer Joan Edwards said.

The Department of Transport yesterday issued details of how compensation for the oil spill could be claimed. Local fishermen, hoteliers and other businesses are likely to qualify under the insurers' Protection and Indemnity Club and from the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund in London.

In Milford Haven the first stage of the operation to pump out the Sea Empress's remaining 65,000 tonnes of crude oil was completed. About 25,000 tonnes have been off-loaded on to the smaller tanker Star Bergen. The salvage team estimated the entire operation will continue for one more week.