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Conservationists Say Slick Threatens Disaster For Wildlife Haven

February 22, 1996

MILFORD HAVEN, Wales (AP) _ The tanker Sea Empress has stopped leaking crude oil after disgorging 19 million gallons near one of Britain’s most important wildlife preserves, authorities said today.

The company that manages the Sea Empress said today that human error was probably to blame for the spill, which occurred after the ship ran aground off southwest Wales one week ago, rupturing cargo tanks.

Now that the flow of oil has finally been stanched, cleanup work can begin on a spill that nearly doubles that of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Oil already has surrounded two islands that are home to seals and thousands of guillemots, razorbills, shags, gannets, puffins and other sea birds.

``You have ... poison spilled into one of Europe’s premier wildlife sites ... It is not just what you can see, like seals and porpoises, but sponges and other life. This must be a disaster in anyone’s terms,″ said Phil Rothwell, head of policy operations for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Brian Pawson of the Countryside Council for Wales, said 545 birds had been sighted with evidence of oiling, but so far only four dead birds had been found.

Bottle-nose dolphins and harbor porpoises also inhabit the area.

The Sea Empress was carrying 36.7 million gallons of light North Sea crude when it ran aground Feb. 15 on St. Ann’s Head, at the mouth of Milford Haven estuary.

Bad weather thwarted rescue efforts for six days until late Wednesday, when 12 straining tugboats finally pushed and pulled the tanker free of the rocks that stopped it. Officials said the ship was towed to Milford Haven harbor and berthed at a jetty.

Chris Harris, chief executive of the Coast Guard Agency, said today that the oil leak had been stopped, and the tanker ``is in a stable state and firmly secured.″ Surrounding booms are keeping the oil from spreading.

``The plan now is .... to make very careful plans to transfer the remaining cargo to smaller vessels,″ he told a news conference, adding that about half the cargo remained on board, and about 75,000 gallons had been mopped up.

Steve Dennison of Cory’s Tugs, which is involved in salvage operations, said the plan is to start pumping oil to another vessel on Friday.

The main oil slick is about 10 miles long, with smaller slicks and other patches of oil along about 30 miles of coastline off Milford Haven harbor and eastward across Carmarthen Bay.

Planes have been spraying the slick with chemicals to break up the oil, while workers tackle the oil where it has come ashore. Light crude tends to dissipate more easily than the heavy crude that the Exxon Valdez spilled into Prince William Sound. Heavy seas also help to break up the oil.

Dyfed Wildlife Trust said the town of North Haven on the island of Skomer was clogged with an oil foam the consistency of chocolate mousse.

The south Wales fishing fleet imposed a voluntary ban Wednesday on working in the 40 miles of coastal waters affected by the spill. Spokesman Phil Coates said crews fear the oil will kill shellfish and contaminate other catches.

Capt. Peter Cooney, managing director of Acomarit (UK) Ltd., the company that manages the vessel, said Wednesday there was ``a high probability″ that human error caused the disaster.

``The early information we have is that there was nothing wrong technically with the ship whatsoever,″ he said in an interview with BBC radio. ``This can be borne out because she steamed in her own power finally to the berth where she now resides.″

John Fredriksen, a Norwegian who owns the vessel through companies in Cyprus, said Wednesday that the ship’s crew and officers were tested immediately for drugs and alcohol and passed.

The tanker had been headed for the Texaco Inc. refinery at Milford Haven harbor on the northern bank of the estuary, eight miles east of St. Ann’s Head.

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