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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Oil Spill Cleaners Face Daunting Task

MILFORD HAVEN, Wales -- The tanker Sea Empress has stopped leaking crude oil and was securely tied up after dumping about half its load around important wildlife habitats, authorities said Thursday.

They now face the daunting task of cleaning up a 65,000-metric-ton oil spill -- one of the ten largest in history -- which continues to threaten one of Britain's most important preserves for sea birds and marine life. Chris Harris, chief executive of the Coast Guard Agency, said the tanker, which ran aground Feb. 15, "is in a stable state and firmly secured" near Milford Haven, and surrounded by booms to keep any oil from spreading.

"The plan now is ... to make very careful plans to transfer the remaining cargo to smaller vessels," he said, adding that about half the cargo or 65,000 metric tons remained on board.

Steve Dennison of Cory's Tugs said a slick about 15 kilometers long was off St. Govan's Head, about 15 kilometers southeast of where the tanker ran aground. A sheen of oil could be seen nearer the site, between Angle and Linney Head.

Captain Peter Cooney, managing director of Acomarit (UK) Ltd., the company that manages the vessel, said Wednesday there was a "high probability" that human error probably caused the disaster.

"The early information we have is that there was nothing wrong technically with the ship whatsoever. This can be born out because she steamed in her own power finally to the berth where she now resides," he said.

Bad weather thwarted rescue efforts for six days until late Wednesday, when 12 straining tugboats finally pushed and pulled the tanker free of the rocks on which it was impaled.

The headland, estuary, coast and islands near the spill form one of Britain's most important conservation areas. Conservationists say oil has surrounded two islands that are home to seals and thousands of guillemots, razorbills, shags, gannets, puffins and other sea birds.

"You have ... poison spilled into one of Europe's premiere wildlife sites ... It is not just what you can see, like seals and porpoises, but sponges and other life. This must be a disaster in anyone's terms," said Phil Rothwell, head of policy operations for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.