Starfish is victim of tanker pollution

Stricken tanker: Salvage team confident of rescue as ecological toll mounts
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Salvage experts were optimistic last night that they could save the stricken supertanker Sea Empress as gales continued to hamper their efforts to prevent a pollution disaster along some of Britain's most stunning coastline.

As 21 men from the Anglo-Dutch salvage team boarded the tanker and prepared to work through the night to save the 147,000-tonne vessel, the Secretary of State for Transport, Sir George Young, told MPs that it was too soon to assess the impact of oil spillage since the tanker ran aground near the entrance to Milford Haven harbour on the Pembrokeshire coast.

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

However, a rare starfish has already fallen 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 oil 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.

Oil could be seen haemorrhaging slightly from the tanker yesterday, which still has more than 100,000 of oil on board, and an aircraft continued to spray the sea with chemical dispersants.

Although an estimated that 250 tonnes of oil have been removed from the surrounding beaches, inshore fishermen, 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.

An ecological disaster in Britain's only coastal national park may be averted if the salvage operation can be completed successfully.

There have been criticisms of the approach but Michael Hyslop, general manager of Milford Haven Port Authority reacted angrily to suggestions that the operation had been botched.

"If you've got a better plan please let us know," he said.

At first, the rescuers had hoped to keep the supertanker afloat close to where she ran aground last Thursday night. The ship is too deep in the water to enter the port and is listing heavily so salvage workers tried to steady her by letting in water; but that failed.

Meanwhile, salvage experts have been lifted on three times and off twice as the risk of the ship going out of control, running aground and breaking up rises and falls with the waves.

The rescue involves three salvage firms (including world-leaders Smit Tak), the Government's Marine Pollution Control Unit, the port authority and the Coastguard. RAF and Navy rescue helicopters are on stand-by. Hundreds of people are involvedco-ordinated by the port authority.

The current salvage plan is to attach lines from the tanker to a fleet of 10 tugs in order to keep it steady. Three have been successful and tug operators yesterday reported a "good day".

Equipment will then be lifted on board and oil can be pumped from tank to tank to correct its list. Only then can a smaller tanker, the Star Bergen, move in to take off some 30,000 tonnes of oil to allow the Sea Empress to enter the Haven. The transfer of oil, however, can only be done in calmer weather and will take at least two days.

Another possibility was to tow the tanker out to deep sea, but Walter Welch, director of marine services at the Chamber of Shipping, dismissed the idea. "You would have to take it several hundred miles away from shore to ensure there was no pollution and the ship might break up in that time."