Page last updated at 12:29 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Ship beaching 'reduced pollution'

MSC Napoli: Pic Roger Sharp
The deliberate beaching helped avert a 'potential environmental catastrophe'

The deliberate beaching of a cargo ship off the South West coast averted the risk of years of pollution in the English Channel, it has been revealed.

According to a Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) report there was a "strong possibility of a large release of oil" from the 62,000 tonne MSC Napoli.

The ship was grounded off the Dorset and Devon World Heritage Coast in 2007.

The Devon County Council inquiry was told oil could have polluted beaches on both sides of the Channel for years.

The Napoli was carrying 3,664 tonnes of fuel oil and marine diesel on board when it was damaged in a storm en route from Antwerp in Belgium to South Africa in January last year.

Least risk

It was grounded while it was being towed to Dorset after getting into difficulty in the English Channel, off Cornwall.

After 50 of the vessel's 2,000-plus containers washed ashore at Branscombe beach, thousands of people helped themselves to the contents - from disposable nappies to motorbikes.

The MCA's 103-page report for the Devon County Council inquiry currently under way in Exeter said that the least environmentally-risky option was to tow the vessel to a place of refuge in UK waters.

MSC Napoli wreck
With the condition of the ship deteriorating rapidly, it was necessary...to make a fast decision in order to avert a potential environmental catastrophe
MCA report

Working with the French authorities, Robin Middleton, the Secretary of State's Representative for Maritime Salvage and Intervention (SOSREP), decided the ship was in danger of breaking up and polluting the English Channel and should be towed to Portland Harbour, Dorset.

But during towing, the weather deteriorated and the salvors and the SOSREP decided to beach the ship in Lyme Bay to minimise the pollution threat as there had been fears that the vessel was starting to break up.

"The SOSREP consulted with local authorities and environmental bodies to the fullest extent possible within the time available," the report said.

"With the condition of the ship deteriorating rapidly, it was necessary for the salvors and the SOSREP to make a fast decision in order to avert a potential environmental catastrophe."

Navigation hazard

The report said: "The alternative of continuing to tow with the structure of the vessel deteriorating would have resulted in the almost certain breaking up of the vessel before Portland was reached.

"There was a strong possibility of a large release of oil and spreading of cargo, with the very real consequences of a navigation hazard in the Channel."

Beaching the vessel in shallow waters meant pollutants could be recovered "sooner and much more easily" with the location being selected specifically "to minimise the impact of any spillage, and enable salvage work to remove the vessel and cargo to take place".

Now all but the 2,800-tonne aft section of the vessel has been salvaged in an operation which has cost around 50m.

The inquiry continues.

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