Belgian coast faces oil disaster from sunken cargo ship

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The Independent Online

Belgium was bracing itself for an environmental crisis yesterday as oil leaking from a sunken cargo ship in the Channel closed in on the coastline, and hundreds of tar-covered seabirds were washed ashore.

Belgium was bracing itself for an environmental crisis yesterday as oil leaking from a sunken cargo ship in the Channel closed in on the coastline, and hundreds of tar-covered seabirds were washed ashore.

About 10 tons of heavy fuel from the Tricolor, which went down on 14 December, was threatening the 40-mile stretch of coast, creating a slick which measured 2.5 miles by 160 yards before it broke up.

Although the authorities had expected the fuel to wash ashore it remained out of sight of the coast yesterday afternoon, although the winds were still blowing from the west, posing a continuing threat.

Since Friday almost 800 oil-covered birds have been recovered on Belgium's beaches and environmental protection officials said more had died at sea. According to the latest figures, some 750 live birds were being treated at reception centres, which had also counted 17 dead birds.

Floating barriers were in place to try to protect nature reserves near the resort towns of Knokke-Heist and Nieuport, and soldiers and fire crews were put on alert to help in the battle to save the oil-covered birds. "We need to protect our nature reserves – we have to keep the sludge out," said Paul Breyne, governor of West Flanders province.

With the coastline between Zeebrugge and Ostend under threat, volunteers offered their help and the Belgian Defence Minister, André Flahaut, put 120 soldiers on standby to help with a beach clean-up operation if the oil washed ashore.

Poor weather conditions yesterday frustrated most of the efforts of the Belgian authorities and two specially equipped boats were confined to port because of the choppy seas. A surveillance aircraft was of limited use because, by yesterday, the slick had broken up into small clumps of oil.

"The swell is too strong," said Sigried Maebe, a spokesman for the BMM institute, which studies environmental conditions in the North Sea. "The plane could not, alone, be much use because there is no longer any central area of [polluted] water."

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