Fears of chemical spill as Italian tanker sinks

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The Independent Online

An Italian tanker carrying 6,000 tonnes of industrial chemicals sank off the Channel Islands yesterday as the continuing gales whipped up heavy seas.

An Italian tanker carrying 6,000 tonnes of industrial chemicals sank off the Channel Islands yesterday as the continuing gales whipped up heavy seas.

The Ievoli Sun, whose 14 crew members had earlier been evacuated by helicopter, foundered in water more than 200ft deep 11 miles north-west of Alderney despite the efforts of a rescue tug to tow the ship to Cherbourg, 40 miles away.

She was carrying 4,000 tonnes of styrene, used in the manufacture of plastics, and 1,000 tonnes each of the solvents isopropyl alcohol and methyl ethyl ketone. But warnings from French environmental groups that any leakage could lead to ecological disaster were not echoed by their British counterparts or by British scientists.

'This has the potential to be a serious marine pollution incident, but it is unlikely to be an ecological catastrophe," said Dr Paul Johnson, head of the Greenpeace research laboratory at the University of Exeter. "Any effect on marine life is likely to be fairly localised."

"Only the styrene is classified as a marine pollutant, and that will evaporate when it reaches the surface," said Dr Gerry Stanley, the chief scientist of Britain's Maritime and Coastguard Agency. "It does not bio-accumulate, so if a fish does ingest it, it will quickly disperse it back out again. It just so happens that we're fairly lucky with this cargo."

The Cancer Research Campaign said that isopropyl alcohol and methyl ethyl ketone were definitely not carcinogenic, while the evidence on styrene was inconclusive.

French green groups, on the other hand, were yesterday painting dire scenarios. France is particularly sensitive to marine pollution at the moment since the massive oil spill last December that devastated many beaches and much of the craggy French Atlantic coastline when the Erika, an ageing Maltese-registered tanker, split in two, releasing huge amounts of oil into the sea.

French anger was increased yesterday as it emerged that the Ievoli Sun had been held in port for safety checks just days before the sinking. The vessel was "detained" in Holland until last Thursday to have "various things" mended, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said.

The ship's Safety Radio Certificate had expired, a liferaft needed mending, electrical equipment was faulty, firefighting pumps and appliances were faulty, and the ship's bilge system needed "attention", said an MCA spokesman. Although the ship had been inspected in Croatia on 29 October 1999, it also emerged that it had been detained twice before in Holland, on 14 April 1999 and 4 March 1997, he added.

Yesterday, as the French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot and Environment Minister Dominique Voynet headed for Cherbourg for crisis talks with maritime officials, President Jacques Chirac said it was "not acceptable to continue allowing such vulnerable ships to take to sea with dangerous cargo". He said he hoped the European Union would quickly adopt French proposals for stricter maritime measures.

The 11-year-old Ievoli Sun, owned by the Italian company Marnavi, had left the British port of Fawley for Bar in Yugoslavia via Genoa when its bow began to dip into the sea on Monday. The 376ft-long vessel was being towed from the stern by a French tug when it began sinking yesterday morning. It went down hull up, with its rudder and propeller jutting above the waves before it sank.

The Erika broke in half in stormy seas on 12 December last year, spewing up to 15,000 tonnes of oil on to the rocky shoreline of southern Brittany. The environmental disaster devastated the local tourist industry. Almost all oyster farms and sea salt producers in the area were forced to close until they were sure there was no more risk of pollution.

Ships only completed the pumping of thousands of tonnes of heavy fuel oil trapped in the holds of the tanker last month.

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