Shipwreck presents environmental headache

While looters may have stolen the headlines along with the cargo of the stricken MSC Napoli, the environmental impacts of the shipwreck could be felt well after the mainstream media loses interest.

While early results from water samples taken by the Environment Agency along the Dorset coastline near the beached ship are encouraging, the agency has warned that the threat is not over and there is still a risk of further oil being spilled or chemicals leaking from cargo containers.

Meanwhile the RSPB has estimated that up to 10,000 birds may die as a result of the oil which has already escaped and has raised the question of who will foot the bill for the environmental clean-up.

The Coastguard’s decision to intentionally beach the ship when it became apparent it was in trouble last week may seem counter-intuitive, but, as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s Pater Whitbread explained from the scene, it was the lesser of two environmental evils.

“When the decision was made to bring it in here was the ship was already breaking up,” he told edie.

“This was the nearest haven of shelter where we could actually beach it. If we had let it continue it would have sunk before it had reached Portland Bill and if it had gone down in the deep water with 4,000 tonnes of heavy diesel oil on board the environmental impact would have been far, far greater than it is now.”

When Mr Whitbread spoke to edie on Wednesday around 30 tonnes of oil had leaked from the ship but he was confident that further spills would be limited.

“They are going to put two crews of salvers on board and they have started pumping out the fuel tanks,” he said.

“We got about 250 tonnes out yesterday and can now go round the clock. With 24 hour cover, we should be getting about 500 tonnes out of the boat a day. Once we’ve pumped out the oil we can concentrate on the remaining containers.”

Booms were put up around the listing ship to contain leaking oil and favourable northerly winds carried that which did escape away from the sensitive coastline.

Protection at the mouths of the Rivers Ax and Brid Booms across rivers seemed to be holding and there is no sign of contamination in the estuaries.

Mr Whitbread said it would likely take almost a week to pump all the oil out of the ship’s tanks and accepted there was a degree of urgency as, whilst the ship was as stable as it could be in the circumstances, it was listing heavily and flexing at high tides.

The latest reports from the Environment Agency said that samples had been taken from nearly 20 beaches in Dorset and Devon and tested for the presence of over 165,000 manmade chemicals.

None showed any of the chemicals at abnormal levels but further sampling will be carried out twice a week until the salvage and clean-up is complete.

“The northerly winds means that any oil discharged from the ship is being carried out to sea,” said Graham Green-Buckley, a spokesman for the EA.

“These early results are encouraging but there is still a risk of pollution from the cargo or Napoli’s oil particularly while the oil is being removed by the contractors.

“We are extending our monitoring and will be taking further samples along the coast as far as Brixham to the west and Portland in the east. We do not think this area has been affected yet but want a full picture of surrounding area. As part of our monitoring we are also taking samples of oil from sea birds affected to confirm the source of contamination.’

The Environment Agency is also taking and storing samples of mussels and limpets. These will be analysed at a later date if a longer term study into the impact of the incident is needed.

There are also plans to monitor the Fleet, a lagoon that lies behind Chesil Beach with high conservation value and a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The agency does not expect any pollution will be found but it is hoped it will give a rounded picture of the environmental impact.

The RSPB, which has been in the vanguard of groups involved in efforts to help wildlife afflicted by the initial spill, has said the spill demonstrates the need for tighter legislation to reinforce the polluter pays principle.

It is particularly concerned about how the oil will affect birds such as guillemots, razorbills and the common scoter, a type of sea duck which is often a major casualty of pollution incidents.

But for the bird charity underlying these immediate concerns is an anger that existing legislation does not offer enough environmental protection.

Strengthening a new law, the Environmental Liability Directive (ELD), would force the owners of ships like the Napoli to pay for environmental harm. Those responsible for chemical spills, GM crop contamination and other industrial damage would be held to account as well.

The ELD is designed to force business to prevent pollution and pay when environmental damage is done. It will become law throughout the EU this April but the RSPB argues that Westminster politicians reluctant to harm business interests will vote through legislation so weak that many polluters will escape sanction.

Sandy Luk, the RSPB’s expert on the directive said: “The Napoli disaster is a shocking example of the type of incident this legislation is designed to prevent and compensate for.

“It may well cost business more but it will also save the substantial amounts of public money being spent on the Napoli clean-up and other such incidents.

“Business must be made to take responsibility for the damage it causes and shunning this opportunity will leave wildlife vulnerable to some of the worst environmental damage possible. This legislation is going to be a real test of the government’s commitment to the environment.”

Sam Bond

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