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Saturday, 14 September, 2002, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
SA battles to contain oil slick
Jolly Rubino freighter
The ship is in danger of breaking up
Salvage workers have boarded a burning ship off South Africa's eastern coast in an effort to contain an oil slick which is already 11 kilometres (seven miles) long.

The deserted freighter is beached close to the Saint Lucia estuary, which is home to the Saint Lucia Wetland Park, teeming with rare birds and wildlife.

Conservationists have begun a mammoth effort to block the mouth of the River Umfolozi with sand to prevent oil drifting into the World Heritage site.

The salvage workers aboard the Jolly Rubino are trying to reach the engine room in the hope of finding a way of pumping more than 1,000 tonnes of fuel off the vessel before it breaks up.

But work to extinguish the blaze can only start once the temperature begins to drop.

"Obviously temperatures and smoke are preventing them from doing a full survey," said Clare Gomes, a spokeswoman for SMIT Salvage.

The Italian-flagged ship is listing to one side and is being pounded by huge waves.

Fuel is streaming out of one tank but, the BBC's Hilary Andersson reports, the real fear is that the ship will break up, releasing the fuel and dangerous chemicals into the sea.

Wind drops

A wide range of wildlife, from whales to pelican storks and rare turtles, are at risk if the slick gets through to the wetlands.

The stricken Jolly Rubino (AP)
The ship is beached just off the coast
Disaster management official Sipho Magwaza said the effort to protect the park had been encouraged on Saturday by a drop in the wind.

"The threat of the slick spreading is less likely," the official said.

Bulldozers are pushing sand into the river, which is also being filled with sand-bags.

The authorities have warned the public that the ship is also carrying a container filled with highly toxic chemicals.

Toxic substance found in resins and household appliances
May cause muscle weakness and tremors, loss of coordination, paralysis, convulsions, coma and respiratory arrest

Richard's Bay Harbour Master Mike Brophy said about 70 containers, many of them containing the toxic chemical phenol, had washed overboard.

"Wherever these containers wash up, people must not touch them as they are extremely hazardous," said Mr Brophy.

Dog rescued

The Jolly Rubino's 22 crew members abandoned ship on Tuesday night after a fire in the engine room got out of control.

The blaze ignited cargo, triggering a series of explosions that could be seen from Richards Bay, a port 35km away.

Heavy winds then blew the vessel aground 300 metres off the coast.

Salvage workers who first boarded the blazing freighter on Friday afternoon rescued the ship's dog.

The crew had assumed that the animal had perished in the fire.

The BBC's Carmen Roberts
"The ship's cargo includes various dangerous chemicals"
Saint Lucia marine biologist Kian Barker
"It was surprising not to see anyone on the beach cleaning up the oil"
See also:

05 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
22 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
07 Aug 01 | Middle East
11 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
05 May 99 | Africa
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