The 3,500 tonnes of fuel in the tanks of a British container ship beached off the southeast coast of England is the "main concern" of coastguard officials hoping to avert a long-term environmental disaster.
Paul Coley, a coastguard spokesman, told AFP that authorities would begin cleaning up the 200 tonnes or so of fuel that had already leaked out into the sea at first light on Monday.
"It's the main concern. It's very difficult to control -- for the moment, the fuel is still in the tanks" of the MSC Napoli, which ran aground off the coast of Branscombe, Devon, said Coley late on Sunday. "If it stays there, it is easy to remove."
"We hope to start tomorrow (Monday), probably with the first light. That depends on the weather. That should last a couple days," he said.
|The abandoned British cargo ship MSC Napoli in the English channel during a heavy storm, 19 January|
Coley said that early attempts to remove the oil leaking from the ship had failed on Sunday.
The oil is dispersed over an eight kilometre (five mile) by half a kilometre area of sea, and the coastguard said that about 200 tonnes of fuel had leaked from the ship.
The MSC Napoli was left with large gashes on both sides by Thursday's storms in the English Channel and fearing the battered vessel would have broken apart and sunk, officials ordered tugs to beach it on the southwest English coast.
Around 200 containers have fallen off, three of which have some hazardous materials inside -- one contained perfume and battery acid, while another contained small car parts.
At least 40 containers have washed up on the beach, with members of the public warned to stay away.
The 62,000-tonne vessel was carrying 2,323 containers, 158 of which were classed as hazardous, including industrial and agricultural chemicals. They were mostly stacked inside the ship and away from the edges.
The 16-year-old freighter, 275 metres (900 feet) long, is lying in shallow water off Branscombe village, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) east of the city of Exeter. It is listing at around 30 degrees and coastguards fear it could capsize.
Robin Middleton, the government's salvage expert leading the operation, said that while the ship was heading for port, he decided to beach the vessel because it was on course to sink, with dire consequences and limited chance of salvaging anything had it done so in deep water.
"The advice was overwhelmingly that if that vessel sank with the cargos on and that we could not recover them, there would be a large and long-term environmental disaster," he told a news conference on Sunday.
As storms battered Europe, the Napoli ran into trouble in the English Channel, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
All 26 crew were lifted off by Royal Navy rescue helicopters as they abandoned the ship in 40-foot (12-metre) seas and 110-kilometre per hour winds.
Middleton said dragging the ship into the shelter of Lyme Bay was the best and only solution.
The vessel is registered in London and owned by the Swiss Mediterranean Shipping Company.