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Wednesday, February 11, 1998 Published at 10:15 GMT


Oil disaster impact 'less than expected'
image: [ The tanker Sea Empress after it ran aground in February 1996 ]
The tanker Sea Empress after it ran aground in February 1996

The impact of the Sea Empress tanker disaster which spilled 72,500 tonnes of oil into the sea and polluted 200km of coastline around west Wales was "far less severe than many people had expected", according to an official report.

The government-appointed Sea Empress Environmental Evaluation Committee has spent nearly two years studying the effects of the spill after the tanker ran aground at St Ann's Head in the entrance to Milford Haven harbour in Pembrokeshire on 15 February 1996.

Its report, published on Wednesday, warned that continued observation was still needed to establish whether there were "longer-term effects, not yet apparent" on some aspects of the environmental, including the fishing industry, marine and wildlife.

But it said a combination of factors, including the type of oil, weather conditions, the clean-up operation and the natural resilience of some marine species, appeared to have limited the adverse effects to below those widely expected.

[ image: This bird was pulled from the sea dead, covered in oil]
This bird was pulled from the sea dead, covered in oil
However, thousands of birds and marine creatures were killed in the disaster and the report called for national emergency plans to be drawn up in case of a future spill.

It said more research was required to check that commercially-exploited crabs, lobsters, bass and whelks were not harmed and recommended that the cost of research should be met by those responsible for the accident.

"There do not seem to have been any longer term effects on the fisheries of the region which can be attributable to the spill, although continued observations on some stocks are needed to verify this conclusion" the report said.

[ image: A cushion starfish nestles under a rock]
A cushion starfish nestles under a rock
"It is likely, however, that the imbalance in the ecosystems of the worst affected stretches of shoreline will recover slowly, based on past experiences of oil spills and there must be concern over the recovery of the internationally important population of common scoters, the rare cushion starfish and amphipod species in the few locations where they were still absent a year after the spill.

The report said that fish and mammals were able to avoid the worst of the oil and any that they did absorb was probably broken down by their efficient enzyme systems.

But it warned that the high number of birds that died soon after being cleaned could suggest that in future accidents it might be better to kill them humanely to spare their suffering.

But, the report says, there appear to have been few major long term effects and several species have substantially recovered, particularly Guillemot and Razorbill numbers.

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