Oil Tanker Grounded in Plymouth Sound Conservation Area

PLYMOUTH, England, January 3, 2002 (ENS) - An empty oil tanker has run aground on the rocky shore of an internationally protected natural area near Plymouth, and experts are working to vent petrol fumes that they fear may explode. About 100 people have been evacuated from the nearest town, the small seaside settlement of Cawsand.

The Cypriot flagged MV Willy ran aground Tuesday in the Plymouth Sound and Estuaries Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area at the mouth of the English Channel. Important habitats for wading bird and duck populations now at risk include estuaries, large shallow inlets and bays, subtidal sandbanks, saltmarshes, intertidal mudflats and sand flats.

Cawsand

Cawsand, England, the closest town to the grounded tanker, has been partially evacuated. (Photo courtesy Stephen Johnson)
The grounded tanker is near the naval dock at Devonport, and about six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the city of Plymouth.

Experts have been trying to vent the tanks. Once that has happened it will reduce the danger from the tons of fuel oil on board, says Phil Collins, chair of the Emergency Environment Group of the government agency English Nature.

Although the cargo holds are empty, the ship was carrying for its own use 46 metric tons of medium fuel oil, 41 metric tons of diesel, and 11 metric tons of lubricating oils. A small amount of oil leaked into the sea Wednesday, but it has been contained.

"We are working closely with other agencies to ensure that this rich and diverse area for nature is not damaged," Collins said. "The shoreline here is very important for wildlife. We are also concerned that in the event of a significant spill, the spread of oil further up the Sound is minimised, as this is where the most environmentally sensitive areas occur."

"These sensitive areas include Jennycliff Bay, important for intertidal habitats and species, Devil's Point where the interest extends to the sub-tidal zone, and St. John's Lake and other mudflats where there are large numbers of wintering birds," said Collins.

"We have been lucky so far, but there is still a need to minimize environmental effects of any possible leaks from the ship to the adjacent rocky shore within the wider context of the salvage and any shoreline response."

falcon

Peregrine falcon near Plymouth (Photo courtesy The National Trust)
An Environment Group has been set up as part of the emergency response. Membership presently consists of representatives from English Nature, Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Devon Wildlife Trust, a private charitable organization, and the Environment Agency.

The Environment Group has appointed an environmental liaison officer in the Salvage Control Unit based at the Queen's Harbour Master's office at Plymouth. A Shoreline Response Unit is being set up.

Found in the area are a number of species that are rare in the UK, or at the limit of their natural distribution in UK waters, including the yellow trumpet anemone, soft corals such as the pink sea fan, and seaweeds. The rare fish allis shad and the rare plant shore dock are also found here.

In addition, the estuary of the Tamar River, which meets the English Channel at Plymouth, is an important feeding and breeding area for large numbers of waders and wildfowl, little egrets and avocets. Teams from the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are walking the coast looking for affected birds and animals.

Collins says the situation is being contained at the moment, and experts are aboard the ship. "We're still working on the salvage possibilities. We're giving advice to the shipping people, damage limitation, really," he said. "If the weather changes, we could be facing a different picture."