ANDREW PHILLIPS January 18 1993


ANDREW PHILLIPS January 18 1993




On a normal winter’s morning, the view from John Leslie’s house on the southern tip of the Shetland Islands is austere but beautiful: miles of bare hills, a few dozen scattered houses and the turbulent North Sea pounding the shoreline. Last week the scenery was the same but everything else had changed. The waves rolling into the bay below Leslie’s sheep farm were an ominous dark brown, and the air was heavy with the pungent, sickly smell of crude oil. Just out of sight around a rocky


headland, millions of gallons of oil were oozing from the wreck of the tanker Braer, and Leslie contemplated the ruin of his livelihood. The gales that drove the Braer to its death on the rocks blew a fine mist of oil onto Leslie’s grazing land and coated his sheep with a thin slick film. “It’s a complete disaster,” he reflected as he herded his sheep into a pen and prepared to move them north to safety. “Our whole way of life is in the balance.”

The wreck of the Braer was potentially Britain’s worst-ever environmental disaster—

and one of the biggest oil spills anywhere. The ship was carrying 26 million gallons of crude from the port of Mongstad in Norway to refineries at St-Romuald, Que., near Quebec City. And when it crashed into Shetland’s jagged coast in the early morning, the Braer took its place alongside the Amoco Cadiz and the Exxon Valdez in the world’s grim catalogue of ecological tragedies at sea. The rocky coves along the south coast of Shetland, 150 miles northeast of the Scottish mainland, are major refuges for seabirds and marine wildlife. For local residents, talk was of the potential devastation facing the islands’ fragile economy of fishing, farming and tourism. And amid reports that a sister ship of the Braer had experienced engine trouble in the St. Lawrence River earlier this month, there were new calls for higher standards of crew training for the tanker fleets plying the high seas.

For much of last week, the islanders’ fears seemed to be well-founded as an oil slick from the broken ship wrapped its tentacles around more than 15 miles of the Shetland coastline. It poisoned birds, fish, seals and otters, and threatened vital northern salmon farms that

provide hundreds of jobs. Cleanup crews, wearing face masks for protection against the fumes, picked up the oil-soaked bodies of hundreds of dead birds. The victims, stuffed into orange bags, were a rollcall of northern bird life: long-tailed ducks, great northern divers, shags and guillemots.

But for all the damage to an environment once famed for its purity, it could have been much worse. Experts who rushed in to deal with the wreck acknowledged that, by week’s end at least, a combination of strong winds, the Braer’s unexpected resilience and sheer luck limited the impact of the spill. On its first night jammed against the rocks, the ship was pounded by winds of up to 100 m.p.h. But it did not break apart, and officials estimated that more than half of its oil remained in its tanks. Strong winds pushed much of the oil into a few tiny bays, limiting the damage. And the ship’s cargo was light crude oil, which evaporates and disperses more quickly from waves and wind than does heavier crude, like that spilled by the Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989.

Most important for the wildlife, the accident occurred at least two months before major bird populations normally arrive in the islands for their spring breeding season. Had the spill happened in March or April, said Keith Fairclough, one of dozens of conservationists collecting dead and dying birds, the death toll would have run into thousands rather than hundreds. “We wouldn’t be dealing with a potential disaster,” he said. “We’d have a fullscale crisis on our hands.”

That was little comfort to the 23,000 Shetlanders who awoke on Tuesday to find the tranquillity of their tiny windswept villages shattered. For them, it was a nightmare: their livestock and crops poisoned, their children breathing air tainted with oil fumes. John Leslie, the 35-year-old sheep farmer, is one of 300 inhabitants of a hamlet called Toab, a scatter of gray bungalows on a bleak, treeless hillside rising above the sandy Bay of Quendale. It is one of the remotest parts of Europe, midway between mainland Britain and Norway. But the emergency suddenly placed Leslie and his neighbors at the epicentre of international attention.

Leslie’s family has raised sheep and cattle around Toab “forever,” but within hours both his business and his way of life were under threat. Oil droplets, blown in by the gales that sweep the Shetlands all winter, soaked his land and made his 150 sheep oily to the touch. Leslie sent the sheep 40 km north to the island’s capital, Lerwick, to avoid the contamination. And, like many people living near the site of the wreck, he did not accept official assurances that the slimy spray posed no threat to human health. He sent his three young children to stay with relatives 13 km away. “We just wanted to get them away from the smell,” he said. “But there’s no question of moving. The Leslies have been here forever. You can’t shift us away, no matter what.”

Other local people focused their anxiety and anger elsewhere: at the captain and owners of


the 89,000-ton Braer, an 18-year-old American-owned tanker that is registered in Liberia. The ship was chartered by Montreal-based Ultramar Canada Inc. Its Greek captain, Alexandras Gelis, charted a course through the 22mile-wide strait between Shetland and Fair Isle to the south. At 5:20 a.m. on Jan. 5, Gelis alerted coast guards that his ship’s single engine was dead, apparently because its fuel was contaminated by water, and the Braer began drifting helplessly towards the rocks. Almost four hours later, two rescue helicopters picked up the 34member crew, a multinational mix of Greeks, Filipinos and Poles. And at 11:20 a.m., the Braer struck Garth’s Ness, a rocky promontory jutting from Shetland’s south coast. Minutes later, witnesses peering down from the 200-foot cliffs above the wreck saw the first oil leaking from ruptured tanks into the sea.

A British government inquiry will try to find out why the accident occurred. But last week, Shetland residents were already charging that some of the crew should have stayed aboard longer in order to help a rescue tug that had been sent to the area to secure a towline to the stricken ship and drag it away from the island. The tug’s skipper,

David Theobald, maintained that he could have saved the ship if someone had stayed on board to fire a line from the tanker to his tug. For Willie Tait, a sheep farmer and member of the Shetland Islands council representing the district directly affected by the spill, the accident proved that tankers like the Braer, manned by poorly paid multinational crews and registered for convenience in such countries as Liberia, add to the risk of shipping oil through stormy seas. A British captain, Tait argued, would likely have stuck longer with his ship, giving rescuers extra time to tow the tanker away from danger. Mixed crews like the Braer’s, Tait continued, find it more difficult to communicate in an emergency.

But there may have been other problems with the ship. Norwegian environmentalists revealed documents showing that the Braer had undergone extensive recent repairs on its safety equipment, pumps and engine. And there were worrisome reports surrounding the Celtic, an identical twin of the Braer. Like its sister ship, the Celtic had engine trouble on the

run from the North Sea into the St. Lawrence River early in January. “All the ingredients for trouble are there,” said Michel Pouliot, president of the International Maritime Pilots Association. He and Canadian Coast Guard officials said that the Celtic’s engines had overheated as it entered the St. Lawrence, primarily because of poor equipment and inadequate crew training. The supertanker’s mechanics had allowed ice to build up around the ship’s cooling system,

according to Pouliot, a St. Lawrence pilot since 1965, a common problem among vessels navigating the river in winter.

Pouliot said he has often witnessed underpaid and poorly trained ships’ crews working “barehanded and in running shoes” in sub-zero temperatures. “For years now at the international, national and local levels, we have denounced the deterioration of ship maintenance and of training of crew members,” Pouliot complained. “I believe there will be more accidents if shipowners continue to refuse to upgrade their vessels.”

Whatever the cause of the Braer’s grounding, the result is that the Shetlands’ age-old industries of fishing and farming are endangered by exploitation of a resource that has been part of the islands’ economy only since the mid-1970s, when North Sea oil was developed, and will run out in a few more decades. “Oil is finite, it’ll go in a few years,” said Tait. “We’ve got to depend on the indigenous industries— that’s always been the way Shetland has survived.” A butcher in Lerwick made his anger plainer, posting a sign in his window announcing: “No Liberian crews served here.”

The spill prompted critics to urge the British government to adopt measures similar to those that the United States took after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. American authorities now limit older tankers with single hulls, such as the Braer, from travelling through environmentally sensitive areas and set deadlines for all tankers entering U.S. waters to be double-hulled. That would limit the extent of a spill if a ship ran aground, but it would almost certainly not have prevented the Braer from leaking after being smashed violently onto Shetland’s rocky shore.

Those and other issues will come under scrutiny by the British government inquiry announced last week. But Shetlanders had more immediate concerns for their families and for their future. As British supermarkets cancelled orders for Shetlands’ fish for fear that it might be polluted, salmon farmers J watched helplessly as oil § spread north towards the f pens where they raise their crop, a $70-million-a-year business. Meanwhile, at a makeshift centre two miles from the wreck, cleanup crews continued to bring in £ the bodies of birds whose Q winter haven had suddenly I turned poisonous. Eric Meek, an expert with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, paused as he emptied another orange bag containing the blackened bodies of nine shags, three long-tailed ducks and a guillemot. For him, at least, the tragedy lay in the fact that the Braer was just one more name in a litany of ecological horrors, and not likely to be the last. “If you've got an oil industry,” Meek concluded sadly, “these things are just going to happen.”

ANDREW PHILLIPS in the Shetland Islands

Many factors—local currents, weather, water temperatures and the composition of the oil itself, among others—affect the degree of long-term environmental damage from big oil spills. Crude oil shipped in tankers varies from light oils similar to gasoline, to heavy compounds that resemble asphalt. Lighter elements evaporate quickly while heavier ones spread out on waves and ocean currents and sink. Heavy oil is more likely to be deposited on shorelines and can be extremely difficult to clean up if it washes onto soft, absorbent sand.

The oil that does not evaporate or reach a shoreline eventually sinks. It can cover bottom-dwelling species, such as crabs, with a thick film and damage feeding and breeding areas. But oil is a biodegradable product and, over time, bacteria break it down into its component parts, mainly carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Cleanup crews treat some spills with fertilizers to encourage j the bacteria and speed the breakdown process.


Gulf War—January, 1991

Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian coast 240 million gallons of light Arabian crude Workers pumped much of the oil released from damaged Kuwaiti and Iraqi installations into storage, and naturally occurring bacteria, prevalent in the Gulf’s warm waters, took care of most of the rest. U.S. scientists say that pollution levels have returned to prewar levels.

Exxon Valdez—March 24,1989

Prince William Sound, Alaska 10.8 million gallons of Alaskan heavy crude Exxon spent over $6.2 billion cleaning up the spill, but scientists say that nature might have done a better job on its own. Areas cleaned with high-pressure hoses continue to show damage because plant and aquatic life has been slower to return, while waves and bacteria have cleaned untouched areas. There are still some deposits of oil under rocks.

Amoco Cadiz —March 17,1978

The English Channel 68.7 million gallons of light Arabian crude The spill contaminated beaches, polluted the fishery and killed the wildlife in marshes along France’s Brittany coast. The local fishery has returned to prespill levels, but there are still globs of oil-soaked sand on the beaches.