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Tanker Wrecked in Shetlands Breaks Up, Releasing More Oil

By Eugene Robinson
The Washington Post


The wrecked oil tanker Braer broke up against the rocky cliffs of the Shetland Islands Tuesday, releasing virtually all that remained of its cargo of 25 million gallons of Norwegian crude oil.

The ship, which ran aground Jan. 5 on the southern Shetland coast, had been battered for a week by the fierce winds and towering waves of some of the heaviest storms the islands have seen in many years.

"The vessel has broken up," Capt. George Sutherland, director of marine operations for the Shetland Islands local government, told reporters. "In the light of the weather conditions she's been exposed to ... it's very unsurprising."

As darkness fell, the ship was described as being in three or four pieces, which were heaving and falling independently in the once pristine cove at Garths Ness.

As recently as Monday, authorities were holding out hope that much of the Braer's cargo was still inside the ship. But hurricane-force winds overnight reduced the tanker to scrap and drove the oil into the roiling waters -- twice the amount released in the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska nearly four years ago.

"It's obvious that most of the oil has now gone," said Geert Koffeman of the Dutch salvage firm Smit Tak, which had been planning an elaborate operation to recover what was left of the Braer's cargo. "She is a total loss, that is for sure."

The Braer's bow was pointing skywards, its middle section completely submerged and its stern shifting in the surf.

Koffeman said that if any oil remained inside the ship, it would amount to only "hundreds of tons," as opposed to the 85,000 tons of crude that the Braer had been carrying from Norway to Quebec when it lost all power and was driven onto the rocks. Authorities assumed that all of the tanks had ruptured.

It was unclear what immediate environmental impact the ship's disintegration would have. Local officials insisted that despite the enormous quantity of oil released into Shetland waters, the action of the waves was continuing to disperse the light-grade crude oil and prevent thick oil slicks.

A thin, patchy slick has spread up the western coast of the main island for more than 25 miles, affecting salmon farms and forcing officials to declare a fishing exclusion zone. But most of the thick accumulations of oil have been restricted to Garths Ness, adjacent Quendale Bay and nearby stretches of coastline.

According to authorities, more than 600 birds have been killed by the oil and scores of others have been rescued. The Shetlands are an important breeding ground for several seabird species, but most winter elsewhere.

The high winds have whipped the oil into an aerosol spray, which now coats thousands of acres of former pastureland. Officials have provided face masks for islanders living near the spill who are concerned about possible health risks. Liver, lung and kidney checks are planned.

The first fish caught near the islands outside the exclusion zone arrived at port Wednesday and was met with good prices at auction. Samples will be sent to mainland laboratories to determine whether there is any contamination.

Several major British food chains have announced they will not buy Shetland salmon or other fish until the possibility of contamination is eliminated.

The ship's operators, Connecticut-based Bergvall & Hudner Ship Management Co., said their insurers have set up a $310,000 compensation fund for islanders, with the first payments by Thursday.

It was unclear what would be done with the wrecked ship. One option was to tow its pieces offshore and let them sink. Another was to try to salvage as much as possible, although it was feared that by the time the weather abates enough to allow a salvage operation, there will be little worth saving.

The final option was to leave the ship where it is. "There have been many wrecks around Shetland," said Capt. Sutherland, "and those remain in place."