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Huge diesel spill off Larne coast threatens wildlife

By Linda Stewart

Published 14/06/2016

The diesel spill off the coast of Larne happened in an Area of Special Scientific Interest and is close to The Gobbins which is a major bird breeding ground. Picture by Pandion Productions
The diesel spill off the coast of Larne happened in an Area of Special Scientific Interest and is close to The Gobbins which is a major bird breeding ground. Picture by Pandion Productions

Wildlife along the coast may be threatened by 40,000 litres of diesel which have poured into the sea at Larne after a leak at the Caterpillar factory, it's feared.

Residents said a slick stretches from The Gobbins - a key breeding site for seabirds such as puffins - to Ballygally, north of Larne. It has also swept into Larne Lough which is an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and home to Northern Ireland's only pair of roseate terns.

Locals now want to know why it took until last night for authorities to comment on a "significant spill".

Diesel could be smelt in the air in Larne on Saturday morning, and competitors taking part in a regatta along the Antrim coast complained of thumping headaches because of the fumes.

Caterpillar Northern Ireland last night admitted the diesel leak had come from its facility and was found on Saturday morning. It estimated that some 40,000 litres of diesel entered a storm drain at the factory.

A spokesman said: "The source of the leak was identified and repaired, the NI Environment Agency was informed, and a clean-up process commenced. A significant proportion of the diesel was contained on site - however, a quantity had also entered a storm drain.

"We have employed the services of an accredited environmental contractor to assist with the clean-up, and we continue to work closely with the NI Environment Agency. The safety of our employees and the environment around our facilities is our main priority in this regard."

An NIEA spokesman said it was investigating a water pollution incident near the north end of Larne Harbour after receiving a report on the Water Pollution Hotline on Saturday morning. 

He added: "Over the course of the weekend, the agency has investigated and monitored oil 'sheening' northwards along the coast from the harbour as far north as Southtown.

"From investigations so far, NIEA has confirmed that there has been a significant spill of red diesel into the sea from an industrial premises.

"NIEA notified the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Larne Port, and the local council on Saturday, and is continuing to work with all relevant stakeholders. NIEA staff are continuing to assess the impact and will continue to monitor the situation. NIEA has lifted samples and is continuing to gather evidence with a view to taking appropriate enforcement action."

Nature photographer Gavin Ferguson, who lives in the harbour area, said the smell of diesel was overpowering on Saturday and he had to close the windows in his house.

"I thought somebody's tanks had burst in the area," he said.

"It stretches from Ballygally to The Gobbins, everywhere the current is going. It has to be going onto the beach - I know it's not as heavy as oil but it's still not good. People have been talking on Facebook and venting their spleen. People were swimming in the water and they are concerned that it will get into the rivers.

"We've been trying to see if anybody would be trying to clean it or disperse it but there is absolutely nothing happening.

"It's the middle of the breeding season. Larne Lough is a protected area with terns and the diesel is in the water right round The Gobbins. You've got puffins and auks - all those birds are in the water at the moment."

Stephen Craig of East Antrim Boat Club, which was holding its regatta on Saturday, told the Larne Times that the slick is a "major environmental incident".

"There was fuel on the water when I launched the boats on Saturday morning - it was all over the lough," he said.

"Some visiting boats from Carrick said the fuel was also present near the Gobbins, and others said it had reached Drains Bay.

"Our regatta went ahead, but if the wind had picked up and we thought there was any danger people could fall into the water, we would have called it off.

"Some people who were taking part said their heads were thumping due to the fumes."

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