The Shetland Oil Disaster: Storms delay salvage work

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WORK on pumping off what crude oil remains in the wreck of the tanker Braer is unlikely to start until the middle of this week, at the earliest, because of continuing gales and high seas.

The Dutch salvage firm Smit Tak has still not been able to get anyone on board the ship. But Geert Koffeman, head of its growing team in Shetland, said yesterday that he believed more than half the cargo of 85,000 tonnes of crude oil remained in the Braer.

The fractured and gradually disintegrating wreck appeared to have sprung fresh leaks yesterday as giant swells continued to pound her. A dense new slick is now trailing from the vessel.

Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, who visited the scene yesterday refused to make any commitment on emergency payments to fish and land farmers who may soon face ruin.

He said that the polluter should pay for the economic damage. But he did not rule out government help altogether. 'We will keep in close touch with the Shetland Islands Council on this,' he said. The council has set up its own compensation scheme.

Councillor Willie Tait, whose ward now includes the wrecked tanker, said: 'I'm disappointed, but this is not the end of the debate - just the begining.'

Mr Lang meanwhile called on Marks & Spencer to reconsider its decision not to stock Shetland farmed salmon, now that the Scottish Office has imposed a no- fishing and no-fish farming zone around the south of the islands. 'They can now rely on the top quality of Shetland produce,' he said. More than 15 fish farms are believed to be affected by the ban. Fifteen square miles of farmland have been contaminated by windblown oil.

Marine and bird life may take 15 years or more to recover, according to the Royal Society for Protection of Birds. It believes that more than 10,000 birds have been killed. The corpses of more than 530 birds and two seals have already been washed up. But 143 oiled birds have been found alive on the beaches, and a seal is being treated on the islands.

Peter Ellis, a local RSPB ornithologist, believes about 2,000 shags, 200 eider ducks, 150 black guillemots - all normally resident in the area - had died. Fifty Great Northern Divers, which migrate from Canada and Greenland must have been killed, he assumes. The Great Northern Divers return habitually to the same winter quarters and it will take up to 15 years before a new generation of birds discovers the area.

Yesterday's row over the use of chemical dispersants also involves the issue of protecting wildlife. David Bedborough, an official in the Department of Transport's marine pollution control unit, said that the main reason for using dispersants was to prevent birds and large marine animals being fouled by oil.

Although he could provide no scientific data to suggest that artificial dispersal was better than leaving the oil to be dispersed naturally, he said that the rationale was well considered.

Others disagree. Paul Sullivan, of Greenpeace, said: 'There is no technological fix that will clean up an oil spill. The use of dispersants will cause the oil to enter the marine food chain more rapidly, and so be more toxic to wildlife. It is better to clear areas such as beaches mechanically and allow nature to disperse the oil without interference.'

Oil will be cleaned from most rocks by wave action within a year or to, but lasts up to 15 years on sand or mud, he said.