Only three days before, large dirty brown patches of seawater gave the area the appearance of a large industrial port and the oil leaking from the wrecked tanker Braer could be smelt several miles away. It was an astonishing change and on the face of it has left the prophets of environmental doom, including much of the media, looking rather foolish. But there are still question marks about the long-term effects of the oil spillage.
The popular perception of oil pollution is that of the thick slicks off Kuwait after the Gulf war, and of tanker disasters such as the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. At first, the pictures of oil-coated seabirds and sad-looking seals from Shetland seemed to tell the same story.
But this ignored two factors in the Shetland islands; the ferocious winter weather and the fact that the Braer's 84,500-ton cargo was light crude, not one of the heavier oils involved in the earlier disasters.
Almost continuous gales and high winds turned the sea into what Martin Hall, environmental health director of the Shetland Islands Council, memorably described as a giant food-mixer. The oil was churned around several hundred millions tons of sea water which broke up the slicks. The Shetland islanders could hardly believe their luck. Magnus Flaws, councillor for the southern tip of Mainland where the Braer was wrecked, said: 'Now people should be able to relax and get on with their normal lives. I think the sea is doing the job for us.'
The lightness of the oil made it much easier for the winds and sea to do this but the composition of light crude has given rise to some concern. It contains hydrocarbons which are more toxic than those found in heavier oils.
Some environmental pressure groups claim that, although about one-third of the Braer's cargo has evaporated and the slicks have broken up, the dispersal of the oil has simply made it easier for it to get into the bottom of the food chain.
Small marine organisms such as crustaceans and bottom-feeding worms would be killed by heavy concentrations of oil but are capable of absorbing small diluted amounts. They are part of the diet of other sea creatures and so the toxins can get into the food chain.
Alison Ross, spokeswoman for Greenpeace, said: 'The visual measure clearly is not adequate for assessing the amount of oil still in the environment. It is irresponsible to take an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to this.'
Irresponsibility is a charge which some council officials on Shetland have levelled at Greenpeace. Dr Derek Cox, director of public health, accused the environmental group of scaremongering about long-term medical effects. The truth of the matter is that although nature has achieved an apparently miraculous short-term clean-up, nobody knows the long-term effects on the environment, wildlife or the health of local people.
Almost 700 people who live near the wrecked tanker are being given blood, urine and breath tests to see whether they have been affected by wind-borne oil pollution. A second check will be carried out in six months.
Local doctors are confident that there will be no long-term effects but inevitably some people are worried. However, at the height of the leakage, pollution levels were still far less than those routinely recorded in London. But windborne pollution has never before been a factor in a major spillage of oil.
Oil which blew on to grazing land near the wreck will wash off the surface quickly but will remain in the soil for some time. Seaweed, which sheep feed on, soaks up hydrocarbons like a sponge. But only a very small area of Shetland has been affected.
Several surveys are under way to check hydrocarbon levels in the sea water and the effects on marine life. Some marine biologists are concerned that 11 ling, fish normally found at depths of more than 30 metres, have washed up dead, but fishermen say that this always occurs after prolonged storms.
The most dramatic and immediate effect has been on birds, with 750, including 450 shags, found dead so far and almost 250 others rescued for cleaning. The effect on the winter birdlife of the area may last for years although there is now almost no shoreline pollution.
Most people on Shetland believe passionately that the wild weather which can cause them so many problems has saved them from a terrible disaster. It will be several years before scientists and doctors know the final answer.
Leading article, page 14
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