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‘Full investigation’ promised into UK wildlife haven oil spill

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The UK government has promised a “full investigation” into the causes of an oil spill over the weekend into Poole Harbour in south-west England, which is a haven to wildlife.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow promised MPs that the government was taking the incident, in which the equivalent of 200 barrels of crude oil mixed with water leaked out of a pipeline, “extremely seriously”.

The pipeline is part of the Wytch Farm oilfield, one of the biggest onshore fields in western Europe that has been in production since 1979. The field, operated by Perenco, is in an area designated as a site of special scientific interest. Poole Harbour is one of the largest natural harbours in the world and an important area for wildlife.

Pow told the House of Commons on Monday that a “full investigation [was] under way,” adding: “We are taking it extremely seriously . . . All of the . . . maintenance records, will be looked at.” She said the Environment Agency would investigate if there was “enough evidence to suggest that potentially a crime had been committed.”

A “major incident” was declared on Sunday after the spill was discovered and a response group led by the Poole Harbour Commissioners (PHC), an independent body that regulates activity in the harbour, was set up.

A ‘major incident’ was declared at the Wytch Farm oilfield on Sunday © Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The incident was classified as a “tier 2”, or medium, spill, which triggers a regional rather than national response. The leak was a mix of 80 per cent water and 20 per cent crude oil.

Richard Drax, a local Conservative MP, said on Monday that he had been “assured this morning that the spill [was] not as serious as first thought,” but added that the leaking pipe had been “located in a very sensitive marshy low lying area.”

The PHC said an aerial survey on Monday had found there was “a 60 to 70 per cent reduction in oil sightings on the water” compared to the previous day. Jim Stewart, chief executive of the PHC, said it held “regular exercises with Perenco . . . in case an oil spill were to happen, so we are well prepared in terms of dealing with this sort of incident.”

Perenco said it was “working closely with the relevant authorities” and a clean-up operation was under way. It said it was too early to establish what had caused the spill.

Such incidents were “very rare,” said Mark Orr, director of the UK and Ireland Spill Association whose members are involved in the clean up operation, but added: “It shouldn’t have happened.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds wildlife charity said it had received several reports of oiled birds in the Poole area and was monitoring the situation.

Malcolm Hudson, associate professor in environmental science at the University of Southampton, said Poole Harbour was “especially sensitive . . . Not only is this potentially a serious environmental incident — it illustrates the risks we take if we place infrastructure like oil pipelines in such sensitive locations,” he said.

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