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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Huge Spill Threatens Scottish Isles

SUMBURGH, Scotland (Reuters) -- A tanker laden with oil ran aground on rocks in Scotland's storm-battered Shetland Islands on Tuesday, threatening ecological disaster to a wildlife paradise.

As oil leaked from the Braer, environmentalists and anti-pollution experts said they were powerless to prevent what could be a devastating blow to the area's abundant bird and marine life.

The tanker was carrying twice the amount of oil spilt in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska and local radio said the vessel was expected to break up during the night.

Four hours after the Braer, carrying 84, 500 tons of crude oil, ran aground in a bay near Sumburgh Head, officials were still unable to make a proper assessment of damage or do anything to contain the spillage.

"We will just have to wait and watch", said a spokeswoman for the Marine Pollution Control Unit, whose reconnaissance and spray planes were grounded by severe hurricane-force winds lashing the northern Scottish islands.

Sumburgh Head is home to a famous seabird colony and scores of fish farms lie nearby. Eider and other sea ducks winter in local bays while thousands of guillemots and shags are at risk.

Local people reported seeing seals coated with oil and said waves crashing six to 10 meters up the cliff would spray oil widely, saturating bird nests in the crevices.

Officials said oil was leaking from the Braer's forward tanks but they could not assess how fast it was coming out.

Coastguards watching the vessel from a high cliff were pulled out Tuesday evening because of the risk of the cargo exploding.

Clean-up teams were on standby with beams and barriers but said such equipment was useless given the winds and high seas.

The tanker was tossed towards the coast after its engine failed at dawn. The crew was airlifted off to safety.

Rescue workers fought in vain for five hours to throw a line to the tanker, whose cargo is equivalent to 600, 000 barrels of oil. The Braer accident is the second oil disaster to hit Europe in just over a month. It was carrying slightly more oil than the Aegean Sea, which broke up and caught fire off La Corona in Spain in December.

But environmentalists said the exposed, inaccessible nature of the terrain and the impossibility of containing the damage meant tragedy was inevitable.

"It is going to be virtually impossible to avert a major environmental disaster", said Greenpeace spokesman Paul Horsman.

Mike Toogood, officer of the Lerwick Coastguard, said up to 30 percent of the oil was being dispersed by heavy seas and more was being dealt with by natural evaporation.