Salvage team confident of avoiding oil spill disaster

Stranded tanker: New hope on extent of pollution as port manager defends the rescue operation
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Salvage experts were optimistic last night that they could save the stricken supertanker Sea Empress and prevent a pollution disaster along some of Britain's most stunning coastline.

The Secretary of State for Transport, Sir George Young, told MPs yesterday that it was too soon to assess the likely impact of oil spillage since the tanker ran aground.

He said an investigation into the "regrettable incident" had been initiated by the independent Marine Accident Investigation Branch and their report would be published.

"The Government's policy is first and foremost to seek to prevent incidents of this type through improvements in safety," said Sir George. "However, carriage by sea will always have some element of risk."

The Anglo-Dutch salvage team remained confident, however, saying that 21 men were on board and would be working through the night to rescue the 147,000-tonne vessel.

The salvage efforts have been hampered by dramatic weather conditions since the tanker crashed into rocks on Thursday near the entrance to the Milford Haven oil port in Pembrokeshire. Further gales were expected last night.

But Stephen Dennison, director of Cory Tugs, one of the salvage companies, said: "It's pretty encouraging, we're getting a lot of systems back on line and we've had a good day."

A fleet of 10 tugs has been involved in the operation, three of which have been successfully attached to the Sea Empress. She has still not been anchored, but appeared steady yesterday as the tide went out.

Oil could still be seen haemorrhaging slightly from the tanker, which still has more than 100,000 tonnes on board. An aeroplane continued to spray the surrounding water, Britain's only coastal national park, with chemical oil dispersants.

Kevin Colcomb, senior scientific officer for the government's marine pollution unit, said around 250 tonnes of oil had been removed from surrounding beaches.

Yesterday, though, a rare starfish became a victim of the pollution. One of only seven known British populations of the green rockpool starfish was thought to have been wiped out by crude in West Angle Bay, on one of the two headlands either side of the Milford Haven port.

Experts warned that it could be several days before the full impact of the spillage on local birdlife is known. So far, some 43 oil-covered birds have been picked up in the area.

Local inshore fishermen, meanwhile, are anxious that their livelihood from shellfish, including crabs, lobsters and whelks, may already have been badly damaged.

They will discuss their future today with a marine insurance assessor, who visited the Shetlands after the tanker Braer ran aground in 1993.

The Sea Empress yesterday became the main local tourist attraction. Families flocked to St Ann's Head, just outside Milford Haven, on the first day of the half-term holiday for schools to see the crippled craft.

Most people were anxious about the impact on local wildlife. "There's so much wildlife, not just birds but shellfish, and it's awful to think of them soaking up the oil. I don't suppose we'll be able to swim freely here again for a long time," said Jonathan Barlow, aged 11, visiting from the South Wales valleys town of Maesteg.