This statement is to inform the House of the events surrounding the beaching of the MSC Napoli at Lyme Bay, east of Sidmouth. The chain of events began on the morning of 18 January. During severe weather conditions, the MSC Napoli, a UK-registered vessel, experienced difficulties on the French side of the English channel, 40 miles off Cornwall. The MSC Napoli’s master made the decision that the danger was sufficient that the crew should abandon the ship. Despite the heavy seas, all of the crew were successfully rescued by UK helicopter from Royal Navy Air Station Culdrose.
In accordance with the Anglo-French Joint Maritime Contingency Plan (Mancheplan) the initial assistance to the ship was a French-led operation (conducted in close liaison with the UK Secretary of State's Representative for Maritime Salvage and Intervention—SOSREP). An on-scene assessment of the condition of the MSC Napoli was made, and the conclusion of this assessment was that the least environmentally risky option was to tow the vessel to a place of refuge in UK waters.
The need for a place of refuge and its location are always driven by the circumstances of an incident, including such event-specific data as the weather, the geographical whereabouts of the incident and the type of threat posed by the vessel and its cargo. On this occasion, the south coast of England provided better options for a place of refuge than the French coast. On the French coast, there were no suitable places of refuge within reasonable distance.
Accordingly, Portland Harbour was selected as the destination for the MSC Napoli, owing to the extent of its port facilities. A tow was attached on the evening of 18 January. However, in the early hours of 20 January, the MSC Napoli’s condition began to worsen significantly due to continuing severe weather and it became clear that it would not be possible to reach Portland. Priority was given to giving the vessel shelter and keeping it in one piece, as there was real concern the vessel might start to break up. The decision was made to turn the vessel towards an identified beaching site in the sheltered waters of Lyme Bay. Environmental groups and local authorities were consulted, and it was on this basis that the decision was taken to beach the ship just to the east of Sidmouth.
On the evening of 20 January, tugs attempted to pull the MSC Napoli harder aground. At this time there was some leakage of oils into the water and a boom was deployed around the vessel to contain it. The oil leaking from the MSC Napoli created an 8 km wide sheen.
The MSC Napoli was carrying approximately 2,300 containers, of which 157 are believed to contain hazardous materials, including perfume, pesticides and batteries. Some 103 containers were lost overboard, and some have washed ashore; 76 of the containers have been found, many of which have been identified and have had their contents verified. The contents and positions of all but 27 containers have now been identified. Three of the containers washed ashore contained perfumes, small gas cylinders and battery acid.
Security around the Lyme Bay area has been a concern, with looting widely reported. A heavy police presence has been deployed in the area. The ship's owners have appointed a private security company to guard containers while the owners arrange for recovery. The beach at Branscombe has been fenced off and made secure. Footpaths down on to the beach are also fenced off, as Devon County Council temporarily closed the paths leading to the beach from Branscombe to Beer on Monday for health and safety reasons. Contractors appointed by the ship's owners to deal with any shoreline clean-up are setting up a compound by the beach to hold the waste and their equipment. Recovered material will be returned to the owner, recycled, or else will go to landfill.
SOSREP is leading the response to this incident. The National Contingency Plan has enabled us to take prompt and appropriate action in assisting the stricken MSC Napoli and there has been strong co-operation between SOSREP and all the parties concerned, including the French authorities.
Because of the fast-moving nature of this incident, I anticipate making a further statement to the House next week.