Manufacturing firm Caterpillar could face prosecution following a massive pollution spill along the environmentally sensitive Larne coastline.
Wildlife along the coast may be threatened by 40,000 litres of red diesel, which made its way into a storm drain after a leak at the Larne factory at the weekend.
A huge slick, stretching from The Gobbins - a key breeding site for seabirds such as puffins - to Drains Bay could be seen on Saturday morning.
The pollution also swept into Larne Lough, which is an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI).
Diesel could be smelt in the air as far north as Ballygally, and competitors taking part in the annual East Antrim Boat Club regatta complained of “thumping” headaches because of fumes from the spillage.
Caterpillar confirmed to the Larne Times on Monday that it had discovered the diesel leak at its Larne facility on Saturday morning.
And while the source of the leak was identified and repaired by the company, it was too late to prevent some of the fuel being discharged into the sea just north of Larne Harbour.
A Caterpillar spokesman added: “A significant proportion of the diesel was con tained on site, however, a quantity had also entered a storm drain.
“Caterpillar deeply regrets that the incident occurred and is carrying out an investigation to fully understand how this happened and to make any changes necessary to prevent further incidents.”
The company has employed the services of an environmental contractor to assist with the clean-up.
Caterpillar said it was also working closely with the NI Environment Agency, which has launched its own investigation into the incident.
Stephen Craig, commodore of East Antrim Boat Club, described the spill as a “major environmental incident”, adding that a number of dead sea birds had already been spotted along the coastline.
“There was fuel on the water when I launched the boats for the regatta on Saturday morning; it was all over the lough,” he added.
“Some visiting boats from Carrick said the fuel was also present near the Gobbins, and others said it had reached Drains Bay.
“People in Ballygally could smell the fumes and were out checking their oil tanks for leaks, that is how bad it was.
“Our regatta went ahead as planned, but if the wind had picked up and we thought there was any danger that 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.”
Marine biologist Dr Bob Brown told the BBC that the spill “could not have happened at a worse time of year” for the host of breeding seabirds along the Larne coastline, including Muck Island’s populations of guillemot, razorbills and kittiwakes. He also expressed fears for other wildlife, including grey seals in the vicinity of the Maidens.
However, Dr Brown also offered assurances that there was “some good news”, adding that the light diesel was likely to “evaporate and degrade” with the tides.
Further north, there had been fears that the diesel slick could have potentially dire consequence for Glenarm Organic Salmon. However, the company told the Larne Times that its stock has not been affected by the spill.
East Antrim MLA Oliver McMullan said the spillage was a cause for “serious concern”, adding that Caterpillar still had questions to answer.
“We need to know how this diesel got into storm drains and ended up in the sea,” the Sinn Fein man added.
“The Environment Agency has said it will look into the matter and that investigation needs to be full and thorough.
“I will be contacting the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to ask exactly how this happened and what steps can be taken to ensure it is not repeated.”
East Antim MP Sammy Wilson described the spill as a “big blow” for the local marine environment.
The NIEA said that in cases where the source of pollution can be traced, the NIEA Enforcement and Prosecution team will decide on an appropriate course of action, which may include an enforcement notice, or prosecution under the Water (Northern Ireland) Order 1999.
A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs added: “Over the course of the weekend, the NIEA has investigated and monitored oil ‘sheening’ northwards along the coast from the harbour as far north as Southtown.
“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.”
Anyone with any questions or concerns can contact Caterpillar on 028 2826 1000.