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Sea Empress disaster 20 years on

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Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 15.33.15IT WAS one of the biggest environmental disasters ever to hit UK shores and now 20 years on from the Sea Empress disaster RSPCA staff are looking back at the role they played in helping to save hundreds of seabirds and mammals.

Early on the evening of 15 February, 1996 the Sea Empress, a single hull oil tanker, hit rocks on its way into the Cleddau Estuary and the ship’s cargo of 130,000 tonnes of crude North Sea oil started to spill into the waters off Pembrokeshire.

The RSPCA launched a massive rescue operation in response to the disaster in an effort to save the thousands of oiled and dying seabirds that were so badly affected by the slick.

Scores of volunteers helped open and run a makeshift animal hospital – set up in an old industrial unit – where more than 7,000 dead or oiled birds were taken – while inspectors, drivers and wildlife centre staff experts worked around the clock to nurse, clean and feed as many of the birds back to health as they could.

“The rescue operation took a massive team effort,” said RSPCA chief inspector for the south west Wales inspectorate group, Romain de Kerckhove, who held the same position 20 years ago.

“It quickly became apparent that this incident was of a scale that needed national resources, and a roster was arranged that invited colleagues from all over England and Wales to become involved,” he said.

“Officers would attend, for a limited period, and would work extremely long days, responding to calls from the public, and patrolling beaches to search for victims of the disaster.

“They were accommodated locally, and would be replaced by other colleagues in order to keep the team fresh and strong. Some officers would actually sleep on camp beds at the temporary bird rescue holding/cleaning facility, in order to ensure that there were people on site overseeing the welfare of the birds 24/7.

“This was a rescue that involved teams from across the entire RSPCA, as well as countless volunteers who would work with us, and assist the RSPCA teams both at the cleaning and rehab centre, as well as on the beaches.

“It was hard work, but everyone enjoyed the atmosphere and being involved in such a worthwhile and much needed rescue operation.”

Richard Abbott, who is now an RSPCA chief inspector, was the officer on duty the night the Sea Empress ran aground. “I recall speaking to a Brecon RCC (Brecon Regional Control Centre) tasker who said they had received a call saying a tanker had run aground at Milford Haven and was leaking 30,000 gallons of oil.

I recall thinking, no chance, that’s never going to have happened, not these days with twin hulled tankers. I asked the tasker to ring the Coastguard to double check as I was driving and enroute to an emergency at the time, about 10.30pm ish.

“She rang me back about five minutes later and said to my astonishment that the Coastguard had confirmed the report. I pulled over and rang the chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove at home and started the response.

“I got back in about 1am that night and by 7am I had the call that I was needed to help set up the emergency response centre. A few hours later chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove arrived and took over.

“It was incredibly stressful for those three to four weeks, as we dealt with thousands birds and managed many rescue organisations. It was a steep learning curve.”

RSPCA inspector Rohan Barker attended the day after the incident with chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove.

“We spent two days putting together our response working with several organisations with very few birds coming in during the initial couple of days – but then the onslaught started.

“We worked 15 hour shifts collecting birds, setting up the cleaning station at a local industrial estate building provided by the council.

“Birds were collected by inspectors, animal collection officers and members of the public, brought to the station, initially cleaned and shipped off to RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre by a fleet of vans.”

Dermot Murphy, who is now assistant director of inspectorate at the RSPCA, was one of the convoy of ambulance drivers drafted in from across the country at the time of the disaster to help ship stricken birds from the Pembrokeshire coast to the makeshift hospital.

“I was an RSPCA Ambulance Driver in London then, with just over a year’s service. I was sent to Milford Haven with an Inspector for a week.

“I had never seen anything like it. So many birds covered in oil in a terrible state, they were still being washed up two weeks into the operation. The birds that stuck in my mind were the common scoter, which is a sea duck. There were so many of them, an incredible amount and in such a bad way too.

“We had a busy week and did a range of duties, from collecting food to feed staff, patrolling beaches looking for oiled birds and cutting up food to feed the birds. It was a massive cleaning operation.”

Inside the RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre in Somerset Paul Oaten was one of the team at the ready to take in casualties as they arrived in their droves from the Welsh coastline.

“We took in around 1,200 oiled birds. at the time of the Sea Empress disaster. They were covered in thick oil. Most of the casualties were scoters, and they were very badly affected.

“Luckily we had a lot of volunteers that came in to help with the sheer volume of birds that were coming in through the doors every day. People were happy to come in and wash towels while others spent their days cutting up sprats (fish) for the birds to eat.

“Those that were tasked with washing the birds would be in teams of two. One would hold the birds, the other would clean it using Fairy liquid. They would have a pre-clean where we would try to get as much of the oil off as possible without stressing the birds out. It was so important to get the oil off their plumage, not just because of the feathers but so that we could try to prevent them from ingesting the oil and stop it from burning them too.

“A lot of the birds were emaciated because they could not feed so building their strength back up and increasing their weight was also an important part of the process.”

He added: “Every role was vital to ensure we could keep the steady flow of birds through the cleaning system and the sense of teamwork was immense. That is my overwhelming memory of that time. the teamwork. It was so uplifting. The days were long and it was hard work but we were all working towards a common goal of trying to save these poor stricken birds.”

WWF-UK Head of Marine Policy Dr Lyndsey Dodds said told The Herald: “20 years on from the Sea Empress, Welsh waters are busier than ever but management is still piecemeal.

“The forthcoming Welsh National Marine Plan offers the opportunity to strategically manage activities that can impact upon Wales’s natural assets and should include provisions to ensure that the risks to the most sensitive areas from both accidental and chronic pollution are minimised.”

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Covid-19 vaccination venues and timeline announced for everyone locally over 50

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EVERY person in JCVI priority groups 5 to 9 will be offered a COVID-19 vaccination by 18 April, Hywel Dda University Health Board has confirmed.

While the health board’s vaccination programme has the capacity to offer a vaccine to everyone in groups 5 to 9 by the original target date of 4 April, the delivery plan has had to be adjusted based on confirmed vaccine deliveries.

Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, and Pembrokeshire residents in priority groups 5 to 9 can expect to receive their vaccine as follows:

  • Group 5, people aged 65 – 69 years – delivered by GP practices between 15 February and 12 March
  • Group 6, people aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions and unpaid carers – delivered by GP practices between 22 February and 4 April
  • Group 7, people aged 60 – 64 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 8 March
  • Group 8, people aged 55 – 59 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 22 March
  • Group 9, people aged 50 – 54 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 5 April

The health board currently has mass vaccination centres located in Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Haverfordwest, Tenby, Carmarthen and Llanelli.

Group 6 is significantly the largest cohort to be vaccinated to date and we understand that many in this group will be anxious to receive a vaccine. Please do not contact your GP or the health board to ask about your appointment, you will be contacted directly when it is your turn and we thank you for your patience.

People in groups 7, 8 and 9 will receive a letter with an appointment date and time. Please arrive as close to your appointment time as possible. The letter will include a phone number to contact the health board should you need to rearrange or cancel your appointment but please make every effort to keep your allocated appointment time.

Steve Moore, Chief Executive of Hywel Dda UHB, said: “While  our programme has had to slow  due to supplies, we want to reassure everyone in groups 5 to 9 that our amazing teams of vaccinators and GP practices have the capability and flexibility to deliver our vaccine supplies as they arrive into the region.

“Vaccine supplies will start to increase again from mid-March, and we are confident that everyone living in our three counties in the top 9 priority groups will be offered a vaccine by mid-April.

“In Hywel Dda we have an older population compared to some other health boards and so over 50% of our adult population will have been offered a vaccine by milestone 2.

“To be able to say that as we approach the anniversary of the first national lockdown is nothing short of extraordinary.

“And again, I must say thank you to everyone living in our three counties who continue to come forward in substantial numbers for the vaccine. Uptake remains remarkably high and we hope to see this continue through groups 5 to 9 and into group 10.”

People are asked, wherever possible, to use their own private transport to attend an appointment. Lifts can be accepted from someone in their household or support bubble, but not from anyone else due to the risk of transmission of the virus.

The health board has put in place transport support for anyone who may have difficulty attending their vaccination appointment. If you have no other means of travel, please contact the health board on 0300 303 8322 and we will be happy to assist.

Everyone in priority groups 1 to 4 should have received an offer of a vaccination. If you have not been contacted, or have changed your mind, please contact your GP at the earliest opportunity. No one will be left behind.

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Nolton Haven: Man hospitalised after getting into difficulties in sea

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A MAN was taken to hospital after getting into difficulties in the sea off Nolton Haven on Friday.

Emergency services were alerted at 2.40pm on February 26 by a 999 call to the control centre.

The Little Haven RNLI lifeboat, Broad Haven Coastguard, an ambulance crew and a Coastguard rescue helicopter assisted police in the operation.

The male casualty was stabilised on the beach and shortly before 4.30pm, was then transported to Withybush Hospital.

A police spokesman told The Herald: “We were called to a male who had got into difficulties in the water at Nolton Haven shortly before 3pm.

“He was taken to hospital by ambulance.”

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Cyclist killed on A40 was serving police officer, force confirms

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A CYCLIST who died after a crash with a van on the A40 in Carmarthenshire was a serving police officer with Dyfed-Powys Police, the force has confirmed in a statement to Herald.Wales.

The driver of the van involved in the crash, which happened on Thursday (Feb 25) has been arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving, it was confirmed on Friday (Feb 26).

Police are investigating the fatal collision, which caused the road to be closed for 12 hours, and are asking for any witnesses to come forward by calling 101.

37-year-old Lynwen Thomas, who is a former student at Ysgol Bro Myrddin, Croes-y-Ceiliog, Carmarthen, was a sergeant and a very well-respected member of Dyfed-Powys Police.

A spokesperson for the police said in a statement: “Our thoughts are with her family, friends and colleagues, who have all been offered specialist support. We ask that family members are given the privacy they need at this difficult time.”

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