London, February 18: Environmentalists fear that a huge oil spill may be heading for Ireland and the United Kingdom, and may hit either or both their coastlines in a little over two weeks.
The spill reportedly occurred as the 46,000 tonne Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, was refuelling 50 miles off West Cork in the Celtic Sea. The spill, initially covering an area of 9 square miles, is now reported to have split up into three different slicks covering almost 40 square kilometers. Authorities revealed revised estimates of 522 metric tonnes of oil spilled on February 18; earlier figures were almost twice this number at a thousand tonnes. Believed to be heading for the Irish coast, the slick could well end up on the British Isles depending on wind and current conditions.
First picked up by the European Maritime Safety Agency’s (EMSA) CleanSeaNet satellite monitoring system on February 14, the spill was initially believed to be small, but recent photographs by surveillance aircraft indicate that the environmental risk is far greater. EMSA, the Irish Coast Guard and British authorities are now monitoring the oil slick, although the Russian aircraft carrier and its attendant refuelling ship and tugs have departed the area. Oil samples have reportedly been collected by the naval patrol ship LE Aisling and the British navy ship HMS Gloucester, and the Russian Federation has been asked to supply oil samples for comparative analysis. The Russians say that they are investigating the incident.
The Irish Coast Guard thinks that the oil spill would hit their coast in about 16 days, and may “ appear on beaches in tarry balls of oil”, according to Irish Coast Guard director Chris Reynolds. The tug Celtic Isle is en route to the area with oil dispersal equipment, and so is the EMSA’s “Galway Fisher”, a pollution response vessel. Reynolds said that success could be very limited, stating that unless the fuel oil is sprayed within the first day of a spill, the success rate at sea is only about one percent. The Irish and UK Coast guards are continuously monitoring the area with aerial surveillance flights with special sonar equipment.
The coast of Ireland has more than a hundred small and medium sized shellfish farms that could be potentially devastated by this serious spill. Experts point to similar incidents that seriously affected the aquaculture industry in Europe, including the Braer in 1993 and the Prestige in 2002, and say that the impact on Ireland could be as bad. Local authorities said they were preparing to deal with any oil that reaches the shore.
“Friends of the Earth” spokesperson Molly Walsh has demanded a full investigation into the incident. She said that the spill was “extremely significant”, and that “Damage to marine life is likely to be devastating, and this will have, as many environmental things do, economic repercussions." Other environmentalists say that besides marine and wildlife, fishing and tourism could be severely hit.
The incident in Irish patrolled waters has sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity since the Russian navy is involved. Some activists have made calls for more stringent anti pollution regulations in the wake of the serious spill.