Workers help nature in slow clean-up of blackened beach

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Freshwater West is the kind of beach where you could spend a glorious and memorable summer day. There's plenty of sand, multi-coloured pebbles, rocks to clamber over and a great wilderness of grassy sand dunes.

Here is fine surfing and little development; all around is open country of grass and cliffs.

Yesterday it was not so nice. Some of the Sea Empress's 6,000-tonne slick had passed this way, smearing crude along the half-mile length and threatening the habitats of wildlife such as grey seals, shags and cormorants.

After high tide it left a smelly mark with the texture and colour of chocolate mousse. The oil accumulated in the shallows beside a small rocky headland, in a thick black/ brown layer. The waves could scarcely break and when they did it was with a strange, gloppy sound emitting dollops of black stuff.

One small bird, perhaps a sandpiper, had been placed respectfully on a rock by the clean-up crew. The bird was quite dead and completely oil- engulfed to the point where it could not be identified.

Three dozen men in lime green or orange overalls were on the beach, getting to grips with the pollution. They came from South Pembrokeshire District Council, from Texaco and its contractors at the nearby refinery, and from the Oil Spill Response Centre at Southampton, which is owned by the major oil companies.

A skinner, a device roughly the size and shape of a tractor tyre, floated in the oiliest shallows. It is full of spinning plastic discs which collect the oil off the water surface into a pipe. A couple of pumps were used to shift the oil into a bowser parked just inland.

"The bowser takes 10 tonnes of oil and we're already well into our second load," said Paul Dedoncker, the Texaco "civil coordinator" in charge of the clean up on this one beach. Two dozen council staff had been mopping up other more lightly oiled areas, using giant spongy mats and pompoms to gather the oil off the sand and pebbles. The men included carpenters, electricians, dustmen and street sweepers all trained to drop everything and hit the beach in the event of a spill.

They left as the sun dropped into the Bristol Channel, but some of them expected to be back there at first light today to carry on with the work. There will be plenty left to do.

A strong north-west wind had been blowing all day. This had the effect of making the oil skim along the beaches before heading out into the Channel. The wind, sunshine and waves joined in the clean-up operation, vaporising the lighter fractions of the crude and dis persing the heavier stuff, mingling it into the water. In almost every oil spill, nature ends up doing most of the cleansing.

Five miles away the silhouette of the Sea Empress loomed out of the sea haze. It was hard to make any connection between the familiar shape of a distant tanker, so common in this giant oil port, and the despoilation of this rural beach.