Stricken chemical tanker sinks in Channel

1st February 2006, Comments 0 comments

CHERBOURG, France, Feb 1, 2006 (AFP) - A stricken chemical tanker carrying phosphoric acid sank in the English Channel on Wednesday after colliding with a cargo ship, French maritime authorities said, raising fears of pollution in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

CHERBOURG, France, Feb 1, 2006 (AFP) - A stricken chemical tanker carrying phosphoric acid sank in the English Channel on Wednesday after colliding with a cargo ship, French maritime authorities said, raising fears of pollution in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

The Marshall Islands-registered tanker, the Ece, sank in 70 metres of water, 90km west of the French port of Cherbourg as it was being towed to shore, local maritime spokesman Yann Bizien told AFP.

Experts agreed that the ship's cargo of chemicals did not present a major threat to the marine environment — but serious concerns remained about the fuel oil carried in its tanks, 80 tonnes according to the French authorities.

"The risk of pollution is not zero," Bizien told a press conference.

The tanker, loaded with 10,000 tonnes of phosphoric acid, had been listing badly following a collision in international waters before dawn on Tuesday with a Maltese-registered cargo carrying 26,000 tonnes of phosphorus.

Its 22 crew members had to be evacuated on Tuesday by British rescue services, but none were seriously harmed in the incident.

French and British authorities have activated an emergency accident plan, Bizien said, and the area — near the entrance to a busy shipping lane — was being tested for traces of surface-level pollution.

Two French navy vessels, patrolling the area along with the French tugboat Abeille Liberte, had so far found no sign of a change in water acidity levels.

"Slight iridescences" — suggesting a possible oil leak — had however been observed at the surface, according to the official.

A French navy mine sweeper was to deploy an underwater robot to search the wreck for possible leaks, and a specialised aircraft would also overfly the area to detect any spills of chemicals or oil, he added.

Divers were also set to examine the ship's hull, but not before enough is known to ensure their safety, Bizien said.

A major leak of phosphoric acid could be dangerous — even deadly — for human divers, according to experts.

The French authorities have declared a fishing ban within one nautical mile (1.8km) of the wreck.

According to the French anti-pollution agency, the Centre of Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution (CEDRE), phosphoric acid does not present a serious threat to the ocean environment.

Even if the entire cargo spilled into the Channel, it would have a "fleeting and localised lethal effect," according to the centre's deputy head Christophe Rouseau.

The acid — used to make phosphates for fertilisers, to rust-proof metals, and as a flavouring in soft drinks — would very quickly dissolve in the sea water, and the area's pH, or acidity level, would return to normal, he said.

But the French environmentalist group Robin des Bois deplored even the limited pollution that could ensue.

"Acid is a dangerous, highly concentrated product that will burn all flora an fauna within several hundred metres of the cargo ship," said the group's spokesman Jacky Bonnemains.

As the Ece started to sink, the French tugboat said it had pulled it away from the Casquets Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), the shipping lane where the accident occurred Tuesday before dawn.

The wreck finally went down 29km west of the entrance to the shipping channel's eastbound lane.

French maritime authorities said they had asked the ship's owner, the Turkish company Aksay Denizclik, to "take all measures to end the threat posed by the ship to maritime traffic and to the coastline".

The 126-metre tanker was bound for Ghent in Belgium, while the bulk carrier had been headed for Poland's Baltic Sea port of Police.

A French fishing trawler sank early this month, with the loss of five crew members, after colliding with a cargo ship in the same sector of the English Channel.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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