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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 13:22 GMT
Sea Empress 'could happen again'
Duck covered in oil

One of the worst oil spills in shipping history could happen again because of a poor planning for coastal emergencies, environmentalists have warned.

On the 10th anniversary of the Sea Empress disaster, two separate groups criticised the lack of an emergency towing vessel to cover the Irish Sea.

The Sea Empress spilled 72,000 tonnes of oil over 120 miles of coastline.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency and a Pembrokeshire MP have defended current emergency arrangements.

In its report, environmental group WWF Cymru said many lessons were learnt following the disaster.

Sea Empress

But while experts said that the area's ecology had only now recovered, WWF's Morgan Parry warned that the nearest emergency towing vessel (ETV) was based nine hours away at Falmouth in Cornwall.

Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South MP Nick Ainger, however, said an agreement which could call on tugs in Avonmouth, Port Talbot, Liverpool and Dublin meant there was "sufficient coverage" for any future emergency.

He said: "Don't let's forget that the reason we had the spillage of 72,000 tonnes was the complete mess that was made of the salvage operation after [the Sea Empress] had run aground.

"An emergency towing vessel would have had no impact, no influence on either the original grounding or the salvage operation."

'Hazardous cargoes'

It had been argued that having a powerful tug on hand to tow the Sea Empress into open water would have reduced the environmental impact.

Friends of the Earth Cymru's Pembrokeshire branch spokesman Charlie Mason added: "Given the pre-eminence of Milford Haven and the nature of some of the hazardous cargoes carried through Irish Sea shipping lanes, it is hard to understand why the government refuses to fund an ETV for the area."

Mr Mason said the situation would become more serious when supertankers carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) started arriving at the port next year.

Map - Sea Empress disaster

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said since the Sea Empress the number of emergency towing vessels covering the UK's coast had been increased to four and they were all on duty all-year-round.

It also said the UK had played a leading role in securing an international agreement to phase out single hull oil tankers.

The Milford Haven Port Authority - which was fined 750,000 for its part in the Sea Empress disaster - said all large tankers over 50,000 tonnes were now escorted into Milford by expertly-piloted tugs.

A spokesman said there had been major investment in new port control systems and there was now a clear chain of command to avoid the confusion that occurred 10 years ago.

On Monday, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced the Pembrokeshire islands, close to Milford, were to become one of 32 locations around the UK that were being identified as Marine Environmental High Risk Areas (MEHRAs).

He said their main purpose was to inform mariners of areas where they must exercise a higher degree of care than usual.

  • Since the disaster the Sea Empress was re-christened the Sea Spirit, it was then re-named the Front Spirit and today is called the Ocean Opal. It has never returned to Milford Haven.

    Coastline's 10-year oil recovery
    15 Feb 06 |  South West Wales
    Sea Empress claims paid
    21 Oct 03 |  South West Wales
    Tanker design rules welcomed
    15 Dec 01 |  Wales
    Assessing the oil spill impact
    13 Jan 99 |  Sci/Tech


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