Oil slick wildlife fears increase

PUBLISHED: 06:47 15 February 2003 | UPDATED: 16:17 24 February 2010

DOZENS of oiled birds have been spotted by officials and volunteers responding to an oil spill close to one of East Anglia's most sensitive wildlife areas - and more are expected to be found over the weekend.

DOZENS of oiled birds have been spotted by officials and volunteers responding to an oil spill close to one of East Anglia's most sensitive wildlife areas - and more are expected to be found over the weekend.

Up to 2,000 gallons of oil - more than three times the original estimate - may have spilled into Harwich Harbour, the entrance to the internationally important Stour and Orwell Estuaries, winter feeding grounds for many thousands of wading birds.

But prompt action by port staff and the harbour authority appears to have averted a large-scale disaster.

The RSPB said last night it had already received reports of 70 oiled birds, most of them swans seen in the vicinity of Parkeston Quay, but others, including a dunlin and a ringed plover, had been found near Shotley.

Some of the swans have been taken to the Norfolk Wildlife Hospital at East Winch. The RSPCA has drafted in officers from Kent to help deal with the crisis at Harwich.

The spill was caused by a fractured pipe at Felixstowe Oil Jetty. The alarm was raised late on Thursday morning.

Initial reports estimated the oil slick consisted of up to 600 gallons of mixed oils but by yesterday the official figure was up to 2,000 gallons.

Unofficial reports said it could be as much as 4,000 gallons.

Clean-up teams continued their work throughout yesterday and an aircraft from the Marine and Coastguard Agency over-flew the area to try to chart the movement of the oil.

The Haven Hornbill, a specialist vessel equipped for oil pollution incidents, was at the centre of operations co-ordinated by the Harwich Haven Authority and involving personnel from all the haven ports.

Monitoring was also being carried out by local authorities and the RSPB.

Small quantities of oil have already washed up on beaches and some has been dispersed by the waves.

Apart from the quantities sucked up by specialist equipment, the rest is still in the vicinity of the estuaries and conservationists were last night hoping it would not be blown on to the mudflats and saltmarshes by the wind.

The Stour and Orwell estuaries are designed as a European Special Protection Area because of their importance for over-wintering birds.

Species at risk include golden plover, Brent goose, grey plover, black-tailed godwit, redshank and turnstone.

Captain David Shennan , Harwich Haven Authority harbourmaster, said monitoring was being carried out over a wide area and as much oil as possible was being recovered.

"Harwich beach experienced some pollution from black oil along the high water mark and a small quantity was found trapped in Harwich Navyard," he said.

Paul Davey, Felixstowe Port spokesman, said containment booms and a vessel equipped with dispersant had gone into action within an hour of the fractured pipe being discovered. The cause of the fracture was still not known.

Samantha Hyde, RSPB spokeswoman, said the society had an incident team at the scene. "Our main concern is that incidents like this keep happening," she said.

Julian Roughton, director of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, said the incident would prove to be a test of the arrangements made to tackle such pollution.

"The biggest threat of oil pollution along our coast comes not from incidents like this but from tankers illegally washing out their tanks at sea," he said.

Anyone seeing oiled birds is asked to contact the RSPCA on 08705 555999.

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