LONDON — BRITAIN'S only marine nature reserve is facing disaster as conservationists battle to stem the spread of a 500-square-mile oil slick from a supertanker that ran aground off Wales.
The lethal crude is now being pushed by tides and gale-force winds eastward along the coast of Wales.
Sir George Young, a senior government minister, has said the spillage of oil is one of the worst off the coast of Britain in recent years. It is being compared to a disaster on the west coast of Scotland in 1993 when the tanker Braer spilled most of its 85,000-ton cargo.
In the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, 38,000 tons of crude was spilled, heavily polluting the Alaskan coastline and causing an estimated $15 billion in damages.
It was revealed on Feb. 23 that a special British fund to pay compensation for oil pollution incidents contains only 10 million ($15 million). Sir George says it is too early to estimate the likely cost of the Sea Empress mishap in financial terms, but conservationists say its impact on the coastal environment of England and Wales is already immense.
On Saturday, environmental experts flew by helicopter to Lundy Island to rescue and treat thousands of rare birds, including puffins and razorbills, contaminated by 75,000 tons of oil (more than half of the tanker's cargo) disgorged from the Sea Empress. The island is 50 miles away from where the tanker ran aground and was holed.
The government has been forced by Labour opposition pressure and complaints from environmentalists to order an inquiry into why the tanker came to grief on Feb. 15, and why it took seven days to get it off the rocks at St. Ann's Head.
Most of the oil now being blown by winds along the coast leaked out of the tanker during and after attempts were made to refloat the ship.
The Labour Party has called for a ban on tankers without double hulls, but Sir George says only 250 of the world's 3,000 large tankers have them.
Judy Philips of the Wildlife Trust estimates that at least 50,000 birds are at risk as the oil slick advances. She accuses the government of "failing to provide an adequate and rapid response to what is turning into an ecological disaster."
Three communities of gray seals and a wide range of diving birds and shoreline shellfish were affected by oil when it began washing ashore on the Welsh coast in the two or three days after the Sea Empress hit the rocks.
But the true dimensions of the threat became clear during desperate attempts to pull the holed tanker off the rocks. In the end it took a dozen tugs to haul it free. While the tugs were being assembled, crude continued to gush from the tanker.
The government is facing awkward questions about the disaster, not the least deciding who was responsible for operating the Sea Empress. In the House of Commons on Feb. 22, Sir George accepted that the tanker had been built in Spain, was owned by a Norwegian, registered in Liberia, chartered by a French company, and crewed and captained by Russians.
Alasdair McIntyre, an oceanographer at Aberdeen University in Scotland, says key issues are "why emergency measures took so long" and why "the tanker was not immediately taken out to sea" when it was taken off the rocks.