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Empress oil leak prompts all-around criticism

The grounding of the oil tanker Sea Empress off the U.K.'s Pembrokeshire coast has prompted environmentalists to hurl criticism at both national government and local authorities for cavalier attitudes and lack of emergency response planning. Concern that a 147,000-dwt, single-skin vessel, carrying 130,000 tons of light crude oil should have been allowed to enter Milford Haven's ecologically sensitive waters in stormy weather without an escort tug or powerful standby rescue tug present is paramount. The tanker's disastrous clash with rocks — for reasons which will hopefully be explained in the findings of a Marine Accident Investigation Branch Inquiry set up by Transport Secretary, Sir George Young — led to little short of a battle for salvors and, despite efforts, nearly half of the tanker's load leaked into the sea.

Sea Empress now takes her place amidst the worst international oil disasters, joining the ranks of Valdez, Torrey Canyon, Cadiz and Braer. Damage to the environment is feared to be extensive, and a massive operation to save oiled seabirds and other wildlife is well under way in Britain's only coastal national park where some of the finest marine wildlife in Europe lives.

The horror of the pollution, coupled with the devastation of the local fishing industry and fears that tourism prospects will prove bleak for years, has unleashed suggestions that the salvage operation conducted by Smit Tak of Holland and U.K. companies Cory Towage and Klyne Tugs was inept. But the salvors, confidently shrugging off criticism when scrutinized by the Inquiry, maintain that everything possible was done as expeditiously as possible, and that sufficient horsepower was applied to the task. Long hours in the bitter cold characterized the four-day struggle to rescue Sea Empress after she hit a sandbank and rocks in the waters around St. Anne's Head, while en route to the Texaco oil refinery on February 15. Within two hours she was refloated, but 2,000 tons of oil had gushed into the sea. Force 8 gales the next day caused salvage operations to be postponed, but on February 17 she was turned by tugs to face 10 ft. (3 m) waves and 35 knot winds. A sudden 60-mph gust caused the lines to snap and the tanker to run aground once again, leaking more oil. Worsening weather made further salvage attempts impossible, even when Chinese tug De Yue (the seventh most powerful in the world) braced herself for action on February 18. With broken shackles she retired from the scene and Sea Empress was adrift, running aground once more just 300 yards from the headland.

The final and successful attempt involved a fleet of 12 tugs including the last-minute addition of 211.7-ft. (64.5-m), 130-ton bollard pull Arild Viking. Seven Cory tugs and the chartered Tito Neri added an additional 424 tons, Smit supplied Vikingbank with 61.5 tons, and Klyne's vessels Anglian Earl and Anglian Duke contributed another 184 tons for a total combined pull in excess of 750 tons.

Tanker owners Acomarit have expressed satisfaction that sufficient horsepower was garnered for the rescue attempt.

The Inquiry is certain to lead to resumed discussions on the double hull/single skin debate for tankers in ecologically sensitive waters. Another tanker grounded three and a half months ago in Milford Haven but good weather and a double hull enabled t straight forward rescue effort and easy disaster aversion.

Pilots will also be under investigation, and particular emphasis may be placed upon recent cutbacks which have allowed pilots to join tankers when they are further along their course. The pilot responsible for guiding Sea Empress has denied being intoxicated at the time of the grounding, and has not been available for comment, other than to maintain that he believes the tanker had a propulsion/steering problem. Acomarit, however, is adamant that Sea was in sound condition, and predicts that blame will be found to lie with the pilot and the captain of the Russian crewed tanker.

 
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