ALL SEEMS SO COZY SO SERENE—SO Scottish—in the home of Jonathan Wills, an environmental writer and activist who lives on the tiny island of Bressay, one of the Shetland Islands that lie in the North Sea. Over a pot of tea and a dram of whisky, Wills, 45, sits at his kitchen table carefully filling a cigarette paper with tobacco. Behind him, a fish stew bubbles on a wood-burning stove. But as he begins to talk about the giant oil spill that hit the largest of the Shetlands (called Mainland) in early January, it is wills himself who is about to boil over. "It's like there's been a death in the family—in everybody's family at once," he says. "There's a strong affinity with the sea here, and with the seabirds. Each species has its own character, and there are local names for all of them."

As oil spills go, this one looked at first like one of the worst. On the morning of Jan. 5, the Liberian-registered tanker Braer ran aground off Garths Ness on the southern tip of the Shetlands and began hemorrhaging her cargo of 26 million gallons of oil—more than twice the amount the Exxon Valdez dumped into Alaska's Prince William Sound in March 1989. Heavy fumes forced authorities to supply residents in the immediate vicinity of the spill with face masks, and first reports in the British press, calling the mess "the Black Death," predicted nightmare scenarios of wildlife being decimated and residents evacuated.

Mercifully, it didn't come to that. For one thing, the Braer was carrying ' "light" crude, as opposed to the tarlike grade in the Exxon Valdez. What's more, awesome storms with winds up to 90 m.p.h. and 30-foot waves effectively dispersed the slick, battering the vessel to pieces in the process. So far, visible damage to the environment—in the form of dead animals—has been limited: 1,300 birds, 11 seals and 4 otters. But scientists fear the oil may be suspended in the water, wreaking havoc in the aquatic food chain and leaving residents to worry about the unseen effects on their ruggedly beautiful islands. Already, local officials have imposed a temporary ban on grazing and the slaughter of sheep in the southern Shellands because a thin oily film has formed on some of the grass the animals eat.

As Wills and his wife, Lesley, tell it, the accident also took an emotional toll. At first, their two children, Tom, 6, and Katy, 4, were excited by the media coverage, says Jonathan. "But then they started to see TV footage of oiled birds and stories about 'disaster,' and they got upset." Admits Wills: "I've been close to tears myself several times."

What makes him all the more angry is his belief that the spill could have been prevented. "It's not like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption or even a tidal wave—disasters you can't do anything about," he says. "This was done by humans, and we're all guilty because we're not willing to pay a little more on the price of a gallon of petrol to ensure that tankers are navigated safely."

A former editor of the Shetland Times, with a doctorate in geography, Wills blames the British government for negligence. For several years officials have balked at suggestions that radar be installed all along the Shetlands' 900 miles of jagged coastline, despite the fact that many tankers ply the waters carrying oil from North Sea wells. In the case of the Braer, whose own radar was working before the accident, the ship's engines had failed, leaving it to drift perilously close to shore. Critics charge that the crew, unable to restart the engines, waited too long to signal for help. In theory, a land-based radar system would have enabled the British Coast Guard to see what was happening and dispatch lugs to guide the Braer to safety. According to Wills, the radar would cost an estimated $45 million. The cleanup operation and compensation, meanwhile, could cost more than $100 million.

Up till now, the most drastic action by authorities has been to declare 400 square miles near the disaster area off limits for fishing. Those residents who suffer economic hardships from the spill will be financially compensated. But Debbie Hammond, who prepares smoked local salmon for export, warns that payments could lead to inequities that may undermine the islanders close-knit way of life: "In a small community, if some are compensated well and others not at all, it can be destructive."

Government officials have announced that they will monitor the health, for two years or longer, of some 600 Shetlanders who live near the spill. (The Shetlands have a total population of 23,000.) Though the testing will be welcome, it has reminded people like Jim Flaws, 30, and his wife, Jane, 24, who run a 300-acre cattle-and-sheep farm along the coast, that apprehension will linger for a long time. Not only do they have a 3-year-old son, Alwyn, but Jane is due in April with their second child. "The doctor told her he didn't think there was any danger," says Jim. "But I don't mind telling you, when I watched the Braer driven toward shore, I hoped to hell that the tide would carry her further around the coast."

The Flawses also have cause for concern about their farm. The ban on grazing and slaughtering is supposed to be temporary, but Jim wonders if his tidy croft will ever be the same again. "What's frustrating is, nobody seems able to tell us whether there will be long-term damage to the land or not," he says. "I suppose we'll just have to wait until the spring to see if the grass grows properly."

For the moment, Wills's main worry is for the welfare of his children. But his larger goal is to make sure they never have to deal with such a calamity again. "I'm going to channel all my anger into exposing the causes of this disaster," he says. "The 'baddies' to me are the ship owners, who continue to use flimsy single-hulled vessels, and the government, and I shan't stop digging into this until I can prove it." '

BILL HEWITT
TERRY SMITH in the Shetland Islands

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith.