Heavy winds threaten to burst tanker, dump rest of oil on Shetland Islands

January 08, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The winds were ascending to gale force again in the North Sea yesterday, pushing up waves in Quendale Bay, threatening to burst entirely the belly of the stricken tanker, The Braer, and spread the remainder of its oily death further across the Shetland Islands.

There was little hope given by the regional weather forecast for today: "Severe gales to storms forecast over the Shetlands."

The Braer remains half-submerged and pinned to the rocks in zTC the bay. It has already spawned a slick 14 miles long across the choppy inlets; it has obliterated the lives of hundreds of sea birds and mammals, not to mention the fish they feed upon, the rockling and pollock.

Earlier yesterday six planes were able to spray detergents to try to disperse the oil. But the rough seas again prevented salvage teams from reaching the vessel, which was evacuated by its 34-member crew Tuesday morning after it lost power in a severe storm while in the channel between Sumburgh and Fair Isle.

The seas also remained too rough to deploy booms and other equipment to contain the crude's drift.

When it foundered, the Braer, en route from Norway to Canada, (( held over 25 million gallons of oil in its 10 to 12 tanks, twice as much as that spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.

Though some suspect that possibly half the Braer's cargo already has been lost through holes visible in the bow and stern, it was not certain how many of its tanks remained unruptured. That won't be known until the salvage crews get aboard and begin pumping the remaining crude to another vessel.

A barge to receive that oil was to leave from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, today and be on site this weekend when the operation will begin, weather permitting.

The wind yesterday not only prevented attempts at recovery of the ship and its cargo, but spread the oil toward shore.

A fine, sticky mist has been floating over and settling down upon the spare, rocky and treeless landscape of the Shetland archipelago, over the delicate grasses that feed the sheep, over the animals themselves, over the barley and oats, even over the shaggy hair of the small, eponymous ponies that still roam the islands.

The wind blows it off the tanker and flicks it from the tops of waves. The air is acrid with it.

"There are certain toxic elements in oil," said Hans Kruuck of the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology near Aberdeen. "These can certainly poison the livestock."

The Shetland Islands Council speaks of plans to evacuate people from the region near where the ship ran aground to avoid the poisoned air.

Mr. Kruuck said the incident is the North Sea's greatest ecological disaster. "It's the worst that's ever happened to us here," he said. "We still don't know how bad it is. The weather is not helping us."

He said it was at least fortunate the spill occurred off the southern part of the islands, where the wildlife populations are not as dense as elsewhere in the region.

"We are concerned with the otters and two types of seals," he said. "But mainly the otter. The Shetlands otter population of some 600 to 700 are unique in Europe," he said.

Derek Niemann, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, estimated that some 10,000 birds are put at risk by the spill.

"As of mid-day today [yesterday] 231 birds were recovered on shore. Of those, 200 were dead," he said. "We estimate that only about 10 percent of those birds that die are washed up. Which is to say that a minimum of 2,300 are lost as of this very minute."

The Shetland Islands is a favored wintering spot for many arctic birds, including long-tailed and eider ducks. Among those lost are shag, long-tailed ducks, black guillemot and other species.

"The other big problem will crop up in the spring when at least a half-million sea birds return to the Shetlands to breed. Many will starve. There will be no food. The fish they live off are being washed up on the shores today," said Mr. Niemann.

"It's all pretty ghastly."

As the animals die, and as more and more Shetland Islanders begin to ponder what will become of the human habitat, if not their livelihoods, the people directly or peripherally involved in the disaster continued to exchange recriminations.

The chief executive of the company which operated the stricken ship defended the captain and crew from allegations they had abandoned it too soon. Mike Hudner, head of B & H Shipping, was quoted in The Financial Times:

"Suggestions that the crew should have remained on board as the ship went aground conflict with our belief that human life takes priority over all other considerations."

A tugboat captain in the region had complained of the hasty evacuation of The Braer. Barry Cork said his tug had reached the ship on Tuesday morning while it was adrift and almost two hours before it struck the rocks, but could not take it under tow because there was no one aboard to receive a line.

Sir Hector Munro, the government's minister responsible for environmental matters in Scotland, criticized the decision to take the loaded tanker through the narrow channel in rough seas where it came to grief.

"With hindsight it was a foolhardy operation," he said.

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