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The Shetland oil disaster: 'Braer' storage tanks almost empty of oil

ALMOST ALL of the 84,500 tonnes of oil which was being carried by the Braer, the tanker wrecked on the Shetland Islands, has now leaked into the sea, salvage experts said yesterday.

'It is possible that there is still some aboard, but we are talking now of hundreds of tonnes rather than thousands of tonnes,' Captain Geert Koffeman, leader of the Dutch salvage team trying to save the cargo, said.

On Monday, it was estimated that as much as half of the Braer's cargo of light crude was still on board in spite of the battering the wreck had taken from appalling weather. But by yesterday morning a heavy overnight pounding by winds gusting up to 100mph had emptied most of the remaining oil from the wreck, which has now broken up.

Captain George Sutherland, director of marine operations for the Shetland Islands Council, said that an aerial inspection of the vessel had revealed that it had broken into three or four parts.

Although there was still some buoyancy in the bow, the main deck was now submerged and the stern was leaning at an angle of 30 degrees, he said.

Captain Koffeman pledged that the plan to pump oil from the tanker would go ahead even though it is thought only a few pockets are left on board. He said that the team from Smit Tak, the firm of Dutch salvors for whom he works, would like to get on board the wreck to carry out a survey before deciding what to do next.

Originally the plan was to send down divers to drill holes into the Braer's hull to assess how much oil was in each tank. These could be plugged immediately to prevent leakage. Pumps lowered on to the deck would then force the oil through six-inch-wide hoses to a barge, the Tak Ten, anchored about 50 yards away and capable of carrying 8,000 tonnes. It would then transfer the oil to a tanker.

An alternative plan if the weather remained bad was to moor the Tak Ten, which is due to arrive in Shetland today, in the relative calm of Quendale Bay and pump the oil through a pipeline over the headland separating it from the wreck. Capt Koffeman said they had started on the latter scheme but had had to abandon it because of bad weather.

The leakage of most of the cargo will affect the money which Smit Tak can expect to make from the salvage operation. They have signed a Lloyd's open form contract with the Braer's owners Bergvall & Hudner.

This states that provided the salvors do their best to recover the ship and its cargo their costs will be paid even if they fail. But to make a profit Smit will have to succeed in saving some of the cargo. There is now no possibility of salvaging the ship and Captain Sutherland said yesterday that discussions were under way about what to do with the wreck. He admitted: 'It is possible that it will remain there. There are a lot of wrecks around the Shetlands.'

Pollution experts continued to be encouraged by the way that the sea is breaking up the oil in spite of the further seepage from the tanker. Dave Bedborough of the Department of Transport's marine pollution control unit, said he thought the brown foam which characterised the most polluted areas should disappear within a week and that there had been less shoreline pollution than expected.

A study by a Norwegian university has shown that light crude oil such as that aboard the Braer disperses quickly, usually leaving only a surface sheen. But the long- term effects on marine life are not known and may be more serious.

The European Commission is donating pounds 560,000 towards the clean-up operation in Shetland. The money will be used to save wildlife and the fishing industry, both badly hit by the disaster.

A statement released in Brussels yesterday said the Commission wanted to make a gesture of solidarity with the victims of the disaster.

'In giving this cash aid, the Commission is demonstrating Community support for those affected by this calamity,' a spokesman said.

Commission officials are now talking with local authorities in Shetland to see exactly how the money should be used.

The announcement followed a presentation to the commissioners yesterday on the scale of the catastrophe. Abel Matutes, responsible for transport policy, and Ioanni Paleokrassas, the new Environment Commissioner, urged new measures to avoid similar tragedies in the future.

Benetton's oily bird, page 21