STRANGFORD Lough is at increasing risk of environmental damage from a vessel that sank in Portaferry harbour in January.
The historic Regina Caelis sank at the Cook Street quay and has since been languishing at the bottom of the lough as Ards and North Down Borough Council tries to figure out what to do with it.
Now local MLA, Kellie Armstrong, has warned the vessel is sinking further leading to concerns of environmental damage to the lough.
The 140-foot Regina Caelis, owned by Ardglass man, William Mulhall, had been moored at the quay for over a year before suddenly sinking in January.
Ards and North Down Council has been taking legal advice on who is responsible for removing the wreck and who has to pay a bill which could be as much as £250,000.
But Mrs Armstrong is concerned that as the deliberations continue, the vessel is deteriorating at the bottom of the lough.
“Strangford Lough is environmentally sensitive,” she said. “Gallons of diesel contained in this boat have already leaked out into the lough. Now planks of wood and debris from the ship are being washed up along the Portaferry shoreline.”
Council officials have been in touch with the boat’s owner but Mrs Armstrong said this was of “little comfort to to residents and to those with boats moored at Portaferry.
“At the behest of Ards and North Down Borough Council the local volunteer Coastguard team has collected a huge amount of debris that can now be seen at Cook Street quay,” she said.
“The amount of floating rubbish from the ship has the potential to damage moored boats.
“Easter weekend is also the start of the tourist season in Portaferry as many people bring their boats to be moored in the quay.
“An incident like this, particularly if it is left untreated, could result in a number of potential tourists deciding to go elsewhere,” warned Mrs Armstrong.
Ards and North Down Council has confirmed the costs of resurrecting the vessel are subject to “an ongoing, complex legal situation.”
Salvage experts visited Portaferry last month to assess the condition of the boat, and warned it must be salvaged as soon as possible to avoid escalating costs.
Mr Alexander Keane, of Keane and Company Contractors, warned that costs will spiral if the boat is not righted without delay.
He said the boat had deteriorated while under water and added that an oil leakage would potentially quadruple the costs of the salvage operation to over £1m due to the potential clean-up.
“The boat has deteriorated over the last two months. It is time to salvage her now, in one piece, for a reasonable cost,” he said.
“If the project is delayed much longer, there is no doubt costs will escalate significantly. If oil seeps out, it could cost £1m to clean the sand. It is time to get her up now, while she is still strong.”
While it would only take a few hours to right the vessel on her keel, Mr Keane explained that two to three weeks of preparatory work would be necessary before that was possible.
“A team of around 15 workers would be needed to undertake the operation, including specialist divers who would come in from England,” he said. “I think it would be best that a decision is made as soon as possible.