Marine crews were preparing on Monday to remove fuel from a listing container ship which was run aground in a storm, posing a threat to bird life and spilling cargo on the popular tourist beaches and fishing grounds of southwest England.
Tony Redding of Zodiac Maritime Agencies, manager of the stricken MSC Napoli, said that some oil had leaked from the ship although the main tanks were secure. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that some birds affected by oil had been rescued.
The French cargo ship was deliberately run aground close to the genteel Devonshire resort of Sidmouth, 165 miles (265 kms) southwest of London, and its crew of 26 was rescued after the ship was damaged during a storm on Thursday.
French officials said that of the 41,700 tons of merchandise in the ship's 2,400 containers, 1,700 tons were considered dangerous, including battery acid, explosive and flammable material. The containers also hold motorcycles, car parts, oak barrels, and household possessions being moved to new homes.
"The oil seen around the ship is coming from washout from other areas, but the main fuel tanks are intact," Redding said.
"The second priority is to take off the 165 chemical containers and then carry on with the rest of the operation."
Sidmouth and Branscombe beaches are part of 95 miles (150 kms) of coast designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site because of the rich fossil beds found along the shore. Small fishing ports along the Devon and Dorset coast rely on the tourist trade to survive.
At least 200 containers went overboard, including three carrying toxic materials such as battery acid and perfume.
Booms were placed in the River Axe and River Brid to prevent fuel getting into the fresh water system.
Grahame Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that dozens of birds, including guillemots and cormorants, had been rescued. "I don't think it's three figures yet," he said.
But he added that it was too early to assess the impact, and oiled birds were being found up to 30 miles (50 kms) away from the ship.
Police patrolled Branscombe beach Monday trying with limited success to keep scavengers away from about 40 containers which had washed ashore, reports AP.
"A couple of hundred people have been on the beach today, taking things away, and there were around the same number last night," said Constable Steve Spearitt.
"Around 15 BMW motorbikes were carried off the beach last night," he said.
Authorities warned that the scavengers were breaking the law.
"People should be able to be allowed to take what they like. It is clearing up the beach, and it is part of the beach culture," said one woman who carried away some carpet. She refused to give her name to reporters, but said she would report the find as the law requires.
"If anybody has already made recoveries from the wreck they are obliged by law to report to the recoverer of wreck," said Sophia Exelby, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
"Failing to do so is a criminal offense, effectively they are stealing from the owners," she added.