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Oil washes up on east side after further damage to OS 35 wreck

Photos by Eyleen Gomez and Johnny Bugeja

Bad weather caused further damage to the wreck of the OS 35 on Wednesday, releasing oily residues that washed up in rough seas along the coastline on the east side of the Rock.

The wreck itself is listing heavily from its previous position settled on the seabed and the Gibraltar Government said the hull was further separated after damage from an earlier storm.

Although this scenario had been predicted as a possibility in bad weather, the leak of oily residues is a concern because the containment boom around the wreck had been removed ahead of the rough weather this week to ensure it was not damaged, and because its effectiveness is limited in high swells.

Already on Wednesday afternoon teams were at work cleaning oily residues from the shoreline, but for now at least, the rough weather limited the impact of the clean-up operation.

The Gibraltar Government urged people to avoid the east side beaches until further notice, with residents in the area reporting a heavy smell of fuel oil along the coast.

"It's quite shocking," said Janet Howitt, from the Environmental Safety Group, who was at the scene to assess the situation.

"There's a big swell, there's lots of waves, but over the top of it there's oil everywhere and the air is thick with fumes."

"It's a disaster...and it just keeps coming in."

The pollution comes at a sensitive time, with the coastline currently home to migrating birds.

"We won't know how far this problem will go until the waters calm and we see the full extent of the damage," Ms Howitt added.

"It's very worrying, it's really sad and it's nauseating."

"I can't believe this is happening, but we'll have to wait and hope that it's not as bad as it's looking at the moment."

The OS 35 was carrying 183 tonnes of heavy fuel oil for its own consumption, alongside 250 tonnes of diesel and 27 tonnes of lube oil.

All of those fuels were removed during early stages of the salvage operation but the wreck still contained residual coatings in the fuel tanks and salvors had warned from the outset that further releases of residues were possible.

Salvors believe the oil residues come from the keel duct that contained pipes connecting fuel tank No.1 to the engine room.

“It is important to stress that all possible extractable oil was removed from the OS 35 last year, and this observed oil is residues contained in this duct which is at the very bottom of the vessel’s structure,” No.6 Convent Place said in a statement.

“The boom surrounding the OS 35 was removed earlier this week in anticipation of the adverse weather conditions, [and] since the boom would not have been effective in these weather conditions, [it] would have likely been torn apart and would have only added to further risk of secondary contamination.”

“It is therefore not possible to reinstall the boom surrounding the vessel until such time as the weather conditions improve.”

The Government advised members of the public to avoid the beaches on the east side of the Rock until further notice.

The Gibraltar Port Authority is working very closely with the Department for the Environment to ensure any tar balls and oil is contained and removed as soon as possible.

The government said it would issue a further update when there were any new developments.

The developments were being closely monitored by the GSD.

“The immediate worry is to our environment and the fact that we are entering the Easter break when there was expected to be increased use of our beaches which is already somewhat curtailed by the ongoing works at Eastern beach,” said GSD MP Damon Bossino.

“The Government’s recent statements included the one in which it was stated that the Gibraltar Port would be heightening its environmental monitoring during the period that the boom was removed earlier this week.”

“The GSD asks why this particular spillage was not avoided and asks further that the Government provide details as to when it considers that the oil will be removed to ensure the least possible environmental damage to our beaches and surrounding areas.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct one of Ms Howitt's quotes.

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