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Oil Tanker Runs Aground Off Scotland, Threatens Wildlife

By William Tuohy
and Maura Dolan

Los Angeles Times


A single-hulled, 700-foot tanker carrying almost 25 million gallons of oil ran aground and was breaking up in the Shetland Islands Tuesday, creating a potentially major environmental disaster in an internationally known wildlife area.

The ship, the Liberian-registered Braer, was carrying almost double the amount of crude that was aboard the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground in Alaska in 1989.

Attempts to contain oil gushing from the Braer were thwarted by hurricane force winds blasting the Shetlands, off northern Scotland between the North Sea and the Atlantic. The British Coast Guard feared the tanker would be destroyed on the rocks during the night, spilling its entire cargo into the sea.

Salvage teams could do little with the tanker, which lost power during a storm while traveling through the 22-mile channel between Sumburgh Head and Fair Isle on a voyage from Norway to Canada. Its crew was evacuated and there were no reports of injuries.

But, said one Coast Guard duty officer: "It is a horrendous scene. Thick black oil is pouring out. There is very bad weather."

While experts awaited daybreak to fully assess the scene, they held out little hope for containing the damage from the Braer, which ran aground on a rocky beach in Quendale Bay and was being battered by the raging storm and enormous breakers.

The prospect of a huge oil spill raised fears for wildlife in the Shetlands, an area to which bird lovers from around the globe flock.

Sea ducks winter in the local bays, and the area has been important for sea birds like puffins, long-tailed ducks, and great northern divers. Eiders, loons, guillemots and cormorants also can be found there. And seals, otters, common porpoises, and killer whales roam the Shetland-area waters, from which islanders pull salmon that fetches top prices because it is said to come from such a pristine spot.

"The impact on fish and birds will be less than it would have been if the spill had taken place in the spring," said Richard Golob, publisher of Golob's Oil Pollution Bulletin, a Massachusetts-based newsletter on oil pollution prevention and cleanup.

He and others noted that damage would not be as great because many local birds have already migrated and the fish are not spawning.

But Golob said the spill still would have a significant effect on nearby bird and fish populations.

Not far from the area where the Braer ran aground, there is a crude oil terminal at Sullom Voe, which services some of Britain's North Sea oil platforms. Its spill-containment equipment, including planes with sprays to break up oil slicks and corralling booms, was made ready for use, once weather allows.

Some experts noted that the Braer -- in contrast to the Exxon Valdez, which went aground on a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989 -- was carrying a kind of oil that might be less damaging to the coast.

Its cargo was "a light crude, which evaporates more quickly and this process is helped by the bad weather," said David Deas, spokesman for the Marine Pollution Control Unit of the British government.

Noting that Tuesday's incident was the second major European spill in a little more than a month, environmentalists called for tougher regulation of oil tankers. Just last month, a Greek tanker, the Aegean Sea, ran aground near La Coruna harbor in northwestern Spain during a storm and caught fire, spilling 21.5 million gallons of crude along the coastal fishing area.

On Tuesday, particular concerns were raised anew about the grounded ship's structure -- that the Braer, managed by B and * Ship Management of New York and built in 1975, had only a single hull, rather than the more damage-resistant double hull.

"This is a potential major disaster for wildlife," said Nancy Harrison, an officer with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "Questions must be asked why a single-hulled tanker, which is banned around sensitive coastlines in other countries, is allowed to be in one of Britain's most vulnerable sites for marine wildlife."

The Oil Pollution Act, signed by President Bush in 1990, requires all new U.S. tankers carrying oil to be double-hulled. Single-hulled vessels must be retrofitted or phased out over time, Golob said.

As for the Braer, it was moving westward through the storm when its fuel tanks were contaminated by sea water, its crew reported. The ship lost power Tuesday morning and was driven by winds and currents toward the rocky coast.

A British rescue helicopter pulled the 34-member Greek, Filipino and Polish crew from the ship. But five crew members and two officers from the Sullom Voe terminal later were lowered back onto the ship to try to attach a line to a nearby tug, the Sirius Star. Before a line could be secured, the tanker went aground, and the Coast Guard ordered the crew and military personnel removed.