The British-flagged container ship MSC Napoli lost power during a gale in the English Channel Thursday, when the engine room flooded more than 40 miles from the Cornish coast.
All 26 crewmembers were lifted unharmed by Royal Navy rescue helicopters as they abandoned the ship in 40 foot seas and 70 mile per hour winds.
After the rescue operation had finished the drifting vessel was secured and was being towed to Portland for salvage, but the Maritime And Coastguard Agency, MCA, decided to beach it Saturday in Lyme Bay, near Sidmouth, following a serious structural failure.
As the tide went out teams worked to drag the ship in as far as possible before attempting to secure it but gale force nine winds have hampered the efforts.
The 62,000 metric ton MSC Napoli is carrying 2,323 containers, 158 of which are classed as hazardous. The vessel was heading from Belgium to Portugal when it was caught in the gale.
Anti-pollution teams are on standby although the Maritime And Coastguard Agency does not believe any of the containers containing industrial and agricultural chemicals were dislodged overnight.
An Environment Group has been set up and its members include representatives from Devon Council, Natural World England, Environment Agency, Fisheries and Heath and Protection Agency who are presently looking at prioritizing sites of protection.
Up to 200 metric tons of oil from the ship's ruptured fuel tank has leaked near an area which forms part of a World Heritage Site. Some sea birds have already been found covered in oil, said Grahame Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Staff from the West Hatch RSPCA Animal Centre has been working to remove the oil from sea birds caught in the spill.
The area around Lyme Bay is part of a World Heritage Site, the Jurassic Coast, named for its Jurassic geology. The coast of Lyme Bay is a popular holiday destination, and the diving off Lyme Bay is famous. The marine life is some of the best in Britain with rare corals inhabiting the reefs.
The Environment Agency said booms have been put in place to prevent harm to wildlife. A Temporary Danger Area has been set up around the vessel extending to a range of three miles and 2,000 feet.
Robin Middleton, Secretary of State's Representative in Maritime Salvage and Intervention who is leading the MCAs salvage response team said, 'The vessel is now aground but tonight's storms are making her roll. A number of containers have been lost overboard, we think about 50.'
Middleton said that the environmental sensitivities in the Lyme Bay area were fully assessed before the decision to beach the Napoli was made.
He said, 'The beaching location was selected based on minimizing the impact of any spillage and enabling salvage work to remove the vessel and cargo to take place. The local authorities and environmental groups have been notified and all agencies are working together to ensure that pollution is minimized.'
The ship was towed in by the French tug Abeilles Bourbon, with the MCA tug Anglian Princess escorting.
The large cracks on both sides of the ship worsened Saturday night. The stern of the ship is gradually settling lower in the water and deteriorating.
But on Sunday, the MCA described the ship's condition as 'stable,' saying the vessel continues to have a list of 25 degrees during high water reducing to 18 degrees during low water.
The ship's owners have appointed a private security company to guard the beached containers. The owners have also appointed a contractor to corral and remove those spilled containers, and that contractor will mobilize to site later today and recovery will begin on Tuesday.
Smit International, the contracted salvors, are mobilizing maritime salvage equipment from Holland to Lyme Bay. The salvors are planning for the recovery of the oils remaining onboard to begin tomorrow.
Salvage equipment has been now been transferred onto the vessel so that pumping arrangements can be configured at first light tomorrow morning.
A barge was chartered in Rotterdam and is currently being fitted with two cranes capable of lifting 500 and 400 tons.
Following an inspection by salvors it was confirmed today that the oil released from the beached vessel came from the engine spaces at the time of beaching and that no fresh oil has been spotted in the water. The sheen of used oils now extending up to four miles before dissipating.
Julian Wardlaw, environment management team leader for the Environment Agency, told the BBC that oil lost from the tanker posed a 'serious risk' to a sensitive coastline. Although there is the potential for 'a lot of damage,' it so far seemes to be limited, Wardlaw said.
The 16 year old vessel is registered to London, and was last seen by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in May 2005 when officials said it met safety standards.
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch is investigating the incident.