MADRID — A damaged oil tanker broke in two off the craggy northwest coast of Spain and sank Tuesday, threatening an environmental disaster from a spill twice as large as the one from the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
The single-hull Prestige was carrying intermediate-grade fuel oil, which is less toxic than crude oil but so thick that it can smother birds and marine mammals with a tar-like goop.
The ship ruptured last Wednesday during a storm, sustaining a 40-foot-long crack in the hull below the waterline. In a desperate attempt to limit the environmental damage, the Spanish government ordered it towed out to sea.
But the effort failed. The ship spilled about 5,000 tons of oil as it broke up, adding to the 5,000 tons leaked earlier.
Spanish beaches were already mired in oil, with birds and shellfish dying in the sludge. At least 1,000 Spanish fishermen have been thrown out of work along the Galician coast, which boasts one of Europe's richest fisheries. The northern part of the area has already been dubbed "the Coast of Death."
The Prestige was carrying 77,000 tons of fuel oil loaded in Latvia and bound for Singapore. If it loses its entire cargo, the incident would rank 14th among tanker spills.
The biggest spill was that of the Atlantic Empress off Trinidad and Tobago in 1979, at 287,000 tons. The Exxon Valdez leaked 34,000 tons of crude oil.
Several European countries and the European Union quickly attacked one another over the incident.
"I am horrified by the inability of those in charge, politically, nationally and particularly at the European level, to take action to stem the laxity which permits these ships fit only for the dustbin to carry on," French President Jacques Chirac told reporters on a visit near Paris. "Now we must urgently take draconian measures, both severe and serious, even if they harm the interests of certain companies whose interests are not worth defending."
The 26-year-old Japanese-built Prestige was owned by a Liberian-registered firm; it is registered in the Bahamas, managed in Greece, chartered by the Swiss-based Russian oil trader Crown Resources and classed as seaworthy by the American Bureau of Shipping, authorities said. This adds to the difficulty of pinpointing where greatest responsibility for the disaster might lie.
"There is a total lack of control of maritime traffic," said Jose Luis Garcia Varas, a World Wildlife Fund marine expert in Spain. "Authorities don't care much about what happens in the sea. Take the Spanish government -- dragging the ship away from the Galician coast doesn't solve the problem. The spill is still in the sea. And, in the end, the sea returns what you throw in it."
The government defended its actions.
"The Spanish administration's decision to keep the ship far away from the coast is based on trying to keep away the source of contamination from the Spanish coast," Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Tuesday while visiting the area.
"This was especially important if new cracks appeared in the tanks or even if the ship broke. Having the source of pollution farther away from the coast would give us much more time to fight it in the sea, more time to monitor it and more time to have fighting measures available."
The ship sank in two-mile-deep ocean 133 miles off the coast and a dozen miles from the Galician Bank, a relatively shallow seamount known for its rich and abundant diversity of coral, sponges, fish and other sea life.
European conservationists have been lobbying for the Galician Bank to be added to the world's list of designated "particularly sensitive sea areas." That designation by the U.N. International Maritime Organization can restrict shipping traffic to protect fisheries and marine life habitat. The Florida Keys and Australia's Great Barrier Reef are among a handful of oceanic areas with such a designation.
"It is certainly a disaster," Garcia said. The area is home to 11 species of sharks, 86 other species of fish, including some found nowhere else, and one of the most important cold-water coral formations off the European coast, the World Wildlife Fund said in a news release Tuesday. "It was a pristine area, one of the few left in Europe," Garcia said.
It will probably be at least six months before local fishermen can again catch the octopus, sole, conger and sea bream that they ship to Spanish cities, while local shellfish harvesters will lose two or three years of production, he said.
Teams of conservationists from Spain and other countries were trying to save 18 types of oil-covered seabirds, including gannets, puffins, razorbills and the European shag. Besides cleaning the birds' feathers, volunteers swabbed nostrils and suctioned their stomach contents through tubes.