Islands hit as 270 containers fall off ship

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Dutch coastguard

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The Dutch coastguard searched for containers near the islands on Thursday

Extensive debris has washed up on islands off the Dutch north coast after some 270 containers including chemicals fell off a cargo ship in a storm.

As the extent of pollution became clear on five islands including Terschelling, coastguards searched the North Sea for missing containers.

The cargo fell off the MSC Zoe near the German island of Borkum, but the tide carried many of them to the south-west.

Initial images showed children’s toys and TVs on Dutch beaches.

But officials said three missing containers carried a toxic powder of organic peroxide, and Dutch and German coastguards warned local people to steer clear of them.

One bag containing 25kg of peroxide powder was found on the island of Schiermonnikoog on Thursday, along with several containers and their contents.

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Of the 270 containers that fell off the MSC Zoe well over 200 were still unaccounted for on Thursday

What happened to the MSC Zoe?

The Panama-registered ship is described as the biggest in Europe, with a potential cargo of 19,000 containers.

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Dutch coastguard

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An aerial view of the ship showed the disarray on board the MSC Zoe

As Storm Zeetje buffeted northern Germany with gale force winds late on Tuesday night, 270 containers of Zoe’s cargo fell off the ship and into the Wadden Sea.

By Wednesday morning, strong tides had already swept some of the containers on to beaches on Terschelling, Vlieland and Ameland and coastguards were scouring the sea for the others.

There were fears that other shipping could be damaged by the cargo. The Geneva-based MSC company which owns the ship has asked a salvage company to use sonar equipment to help retrieve the missing containers.

Overnight into Thursday, the MSC Zoe docked at Bremerhaven. Several containers were spotted in German waters and a further 11 were seen by the Dutch coastguard floating between the islands of Ameland and Schiermonnikoog.

How bad is the pollution?

By Thursday five Dutch islands in the Wadden Sea had seen debris from the MSC Zoe wash up on its beaches.

On Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog volunteers were helping on Thursday to clear up the mess spilt the previous day.

Among the rubbish found on Terschelling’s long, sandy beaches were shoes, bags, cushions, chairs and plastic cups. Children found pink toys among the rubbish.

Volunteers had to scoop polystyrene packaging from the dunes.

Further to the east, on Schiermonnikoog, a trail of plastic rubbish, shoes and light bulbs was found on the beaches. “This is truly a disaster. How are we going to clean this up?” said local environmentalist Cynthia Borras. “We were prepared for an oil disaster but not this.”

Terschelling mayor Bert Wassink feared the clean-up could take a long time.

“We’ve never seen this before. It’s becoming more common to see containers falling in the water but never before on this scale,” he told public broadcaster NOS.

When the MSC Napoli ran aground off the south-west coast of England in 2007, 80 containers washed ashore. Police had to shut a local beach as people scoured the debris for motorbikes and other merchandise.

Police had to use old laws on scavenging that require people to return goods from the stricken ship.

Although some flat screen TVs were found in the debris on Wednesday, most concerns on the Dutch islands focused on the environmental damage to the area.

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