Environmental groups and tourism workers have expressed grave concerns about hazardous chemicals and oil washed overboard from a stricken cargo ship beached off the Devon coast.
Some birds have been found covered in oil. Photo: Gareth Hughes
Up to 200 tonnes of oil in a ruptured fuel tank has leaked near the coastline around the area which forms part of a World Heritage Site
The RSPB's Grahame Madge said birds that lived near the coast around Branscombe, near Sidmouth - where the ship is beached - included guillemots, razorbills and flocks of sea ducks including the common scoter.
The sea birds were wintering there, he said.
While these species were "not particularly rare", their deaths would "further threaten their existence", he added.
The oil escaping from the Napoli's ruptured fuel tank was a "major concern", Mr Madge said.
Some sea birds have already been found covered in oil.
"This coast is particularly important given the weather conditions that we had over the last week," Mr Madge said.
"We would expect sea birds to be pushed in quite close to the coast.
"The fact that the vessel has been beached off shore is worrying."
The rocky nature of the coastline meant it was difficult to get access to large areas of the coastline in order to help oiled birds, Mr Madge said.
The MSC Napoli is beached off the coast around Branscombe
For any oiled birds that were washed up and found the local RSPCA had "very good facilities" for washing the oil off.
Gareth Hughes, 53, of Sidmouth took a photograph at Branscombe beach of a sea bird covered in oil.
He said: "The containers are washed up on the beach in blocks of fours and fives, but there are three or four loose in the sea.
"I expected to see a boom around the ship to prevent any oil spill from spreading, but there's nothing whatsoever. But I don't think there's a major spill so far, although that bird is covered in something."
However, the Environment Agency said booms have been put in place to prevent damage to wildlife, including on the Axe estuary.
The RSPB's other major concern was that the substances in some containers lost from the ship could be "very hazardous".
More than 150 of the MSC Napoli's 2,400 containers - some of which contain hazardous substances - have gone into the sea.
If a hazardous container was to leak it could be disastrous "not only for marine wildlife but for also for marine fisheries", said Mr Madge.
Ian Stuart, who runs cruises along the World Heritage Coast, voiced concerns about the possible impact of the incident on his business.
"This whole area relies on the beaches for tourism," he said.
"If you start having these containers thumping around in the shallow water then there's going to be trouble."
Mr Stuart said he would expect any containers washed up on beaches to be cleared up.
"It's not so bad if they get on the beach," he added.
"If the containers sink 100 metres off shore - where they are now - they'll probably stay there."
The potentially hazardous substances inside could leak and the containers could become tangled up in the nets of trawlers, he added.
Mr Stuart said that, if the direction of the wind changed, there was potential for more serious damage.
He was particularly worried about stray containers being swept over to nearby Ladram Bay where tourists flock in the summer to see the sandstone pinnacle rock formations.
"This is one of the most important parts of the World Heritage Site," he added.
"One of these containers could do a lot of damage."
Oil removal plan
Julian Wardlaw, environment management team leader for the Environment Agency, said oil lost from the tanker posed a "serious risk" to what was a sensitive coastline.
But he said they were working to remove the oil as soon as possible, and hoped that job would be completed within three days.
Although there was the potential for "a lot of damage", it so far seemed to be limited,
Mr Wardlaw said.
"We have had a number of reports of oiled sea birds," he said. "Normally they are the first ones to show any signs because they have access to floating material.
"There certainly has been some loss of oil from the vessel but that's quite limited. Apart from that we haven't had any other reports of damage."
He also warned if the wind changed and blew from the south or west it could blow spill material on to the shore.
Devon County Council said it is helping in the clean-up and said its emergency planning team had "rigorous plans in place" which were practised regularly.
Council Leader Councillor Brian Greenslade said: "Our priority is to ensure that members of the public are safe, and that the impact on our historic coastline is minimised."