Stricken Cargo Ship Poses Pollution Danger to Britain's Coastline

Kate Ravilious in Scotland
for National Geographic News
January 23, 2007

A pristine stretch of Britain's coastline is facing environmental disaster following the grounding of a cargo ship carrying oil and hazardous chemicals.

The MSC Napoli, a 68,000-ton (62,000-metric-ton) container ship, has already spilled 220 tons (200 metric tons) of light fuel oil from it's engine room, creating a five-mile-long (eight-kilometer-long) slick on the sea surface just off the southwest coast of the United Kingdom.

The Napoli was sliced open on January 18 during a heavy storm, and initial efforts to tow the ship to Portland Harbor were stymied by severe structural damage.

So the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency decided to beach the ship in Lyme Bay, part a wildlife-rich area near Sidmouth in Devon. The ship's 26-man crew were removed to safety in a dramatic helicopter-rescue operation.

Now salvage crews are working around the clock to remove containers and pump oil off the ship.

The most pressing concern is the ship's 3,900-ton (3,500-metric-ton) store of heavy fuel oil, used to drive the boat.

"If this leaks out, then it will be a very serious incident," said Farooq Mulla, a spokesperson from the country's Environment Agency.

Wildlife at Risk

The area of coast where the Napoli has been beached has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).

The location's 95 miles (153 kilometers) of coastline have is home to rich and varied flora and fauna.

Oil reaching shore could threaten rare species such as the pink seafan (a coral) and specialized niche environments such as the maerl beds (areas of slow-growing red seaweeds). (Related: "Alaska Oil Spill Fuels Concerns Over Arctic Wildlife, Future Drilling" [March 20, 2006].)

More than a thousand birds—mostly guillemots and gulls—are already suffering from the effects of the oil spill, adds the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. And these numbers could dramatically increase if the heavy oil starts to leak, they add.

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