Oil slick drifts towards Irish coast as polluter silence hurts clean-up efforts

Wed, Feb 18, 2009, 00:00

THE RUSSIAN Federation says it is carrying out an investigation into a serious oil pollution incident off the south Irish coast, which is being carried in an easterly direction across the Celtic Sea.

The Irish Coast Guard has activated an emergency response plan, but says that its efforts to disperse the fuel oil at sea have been hampered by the failure of those responsible to report the spill immediately.

The latest estimate from British authorities last night was that some 522 tonnes of oil in the Celtic Sea was drifting in three separate slicks spreading over 40 sq km.

It was heading towards the south-east Irish coast, but could end up on the British coast, depending on wind and weather, within the next fortnight.

A 46,000 tonne Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the flagship of the Russian Navy, was refuelling in the area at the time of the incident.

A spill was picked up by the European Maritime Safety Agency’s (EMSA) CleanSeaNet satellite monitoring system on Saturday.

Initially, the spill was believed to be small, but new images yesterday from both satellite and overflights taken some 40 miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale suggested that it was far larger than originally estimated.

Samples collected from the area by the Naval patrol ship LE Aislingand the British navy ship HMS Gloucesterare being analysed to trace the source. The Department of Transport has also asked the Russian Federation embassy in Dublin to supply samples from the aircraft carrier and refuelling tanker.

The Admiral Kuznetsovleft for an Atlantic tour last December, and a small fire which claimed the life of one crew member was reported on board while the ship was anchored off Turkey in early January.

The Russian Federation’s embassy told The Irish Timesyesterday that it had no further information, but that the Russian authorities were conducting an investigation. The incident occurred outside Irish territorial waters and warships have immunity from prosecution in such circumstances, according to the Government’s legal advice.

The Irish Coast Guard estimates that the fuel oil could begin to appear somewhere along Irish Sea coasts in about 16 days, unless it breaks up or evaporates en route.

“It may appear on beaches in tarry balls of oil, and we intend to supply local authorities with additional booms to try and protect sensitive habitats,” Irish Coast Guard director Chris Reynolds said.

“When you think that the Kowloon Bridgehad about 500 tonnes of oil in its bunkers when it ran up and broke on the west Cork coast, it gives an indication of the scale and potential risk,” he said. The Hong Kong-registered bulk oil vessel polluted beaches and coves after it was wrecked off the Cork coast in November 1986.

A tug, Celtic Isle, contracted from a Foynes company, was en route to the area with oil dispersal equipment. The EMSA’s pollution response vessel for this Atlantic region, the Galway Fisher, is also en route to Cork to take on board anti-pollution equipment.

The tug is expected to attempt deployment of skimmers today, but Mr Reynolds said that international experience showed that success could be very limited. “Unless this fuel oil can be sprayed within the first day of a spill, it is very difficult to deal with, and collection at sea has a success rate of about 1 per cent,” he said.

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Aquaculture division called on the relevant local authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure that shellfish farmers in counties Cork, Wexford and Waterford were protected. Over 25 per cent of national production of mussels and oysters are cultivated in this area, IFA Aquaculture’s chief executive Richie Flynn said.

“Over 100 small and medium sized farms operate in inshore areas from Kenmare Bay in west Cork to Wexford Harbour,” he said. Oil spills have caused problems and enormous losses for the aquaculture industry internationally – most notably the Prestige pollution incident in Spain in 2002 and the wreck of the Braer off the Shetland Islands in 1993, he said.

EMSA is monitoring the oil slick, and the Irish Coast Guard is working with the British authorities. The Russian aircraft carrier and its attendant fleet of tugs and refuelling ship have left the area.

Labour Party European election candidate for Leinster, Nessa Childers, said attempts by the EU to introduce strict criminal penalties for sea pollution were being “blocked” by the Government.