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Oil Spill Creeps Up the Spanish Coast

Crews work to limit the damage caused by the tanker leak. But officials predict the latest slick will sully more beaches and inlets.

November 21, 2002|Jeffrey Fleishman and Cristina Mateo Yanguas Special to The Times | Special to The Times

MADRID — Strong North Atlantic winds are pushing another huge oil slick from a tanker that ruptured off the Spanish coast as environmentalists and emergency crews frantically attempted to corral the spill Wednesday and prevent further catastrophe to a multimillion-dollar fishing industry and one of Europe's most delicate ecosystems.

Oozing through the ocean and gooey as tar, the 6,000-ton oil spill was creeping up the coast as a fleet of boats strung out floating barriers. Officials predicted that at least some of the slick from the sunken Prestige oil tanker, which was carrying 77,000 tons of fuel, would pollute more beaches and inlets in Spain and Portugal by Friday.

It is possible that changing ocean currents and shifting 60-mph gusts could sweep the oil farther out to sea. Winds and 25-foot waves weakened the 22-mile black sheen by splitting it into several parts. But emergency crews were bracing for the worst. If the latest slick reaches land, it will foul a longer stretch of craggy coves and damage a wider swath of the fishing industry than the previous slicks.

More than 1,000 fishermen have been forced off the seas, and untold numbers of birds and other wildlife are believed to have perished. Spanish authorities announced a 30% decline in seafood sales in recent days.

Environmentalists are hoping that most of the Prestige cargo -- about 65,000 tons of oil -- will solidify in the frigid water and remain entombed in the vessel, which snapped in two Tuesday and sank about 133 miles off the northwestern Spanish coast. So far, officials said, no sign of a massive leak has bubbled up from the depths.

"We hope that the sunken part does not spill its fuel. But it's still a time bomb at the bottom of the sea," said Maria Jose Caballero, head of Greenpeace's coastal project. "There's nothing that makes us believe it won't finally burst and leak all its oil."

Spanish Environment Minister Jaume Matas said: "We still don't know whether we have passed the threshold of this crisis."

As volunteers and Spanish soldiers scraped gobs of oil from rocks and boats and birds along nearly 200 miles of the Galician coast, the game of second-guessing and blame reverberated across Europe. French President Jacques Chirac called the Prestige a "garbage ship" and said that too many poorly regulated tankers are plying the seas and skirting European environmental codes.

Government Criticized

Environmentalists criticized the Spanish government for not towing the Prestige to a port and off-loading the oil shortly after it began listing and leaking in stormy seas a week ago. The government instead attempted to limit damage by towing the vessel farther out to sea, where it cracked and sank in water nearly 12,000 feet, or about two miles, deep. The Spanish media reported that the government considered bombing the Prestige with F-18 fighter jets in hopes the explosions would burn off the fuel. The wayward vessel was also barred from entering ports in France, Britain and Portugal.

The Prestige -- a 26-year-old Japanese-built tanker -- passed its annual inspection last year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Three years earlier, the ship was cited for safety violations in at least two ports. In May 1999, U.S. authorities in New York cited the ship for "a deficiency in safety equipment." Four months later in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, the vessel was given a similar citation and also written up for problems with life-saving equipment. Neither was considered serious enough to keep the tanker off the seas.

Ron Mench, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard, could not confirm Wednesday whether his agency had ever cited the Prestige for any serious violations. Mench said that after receiving numerous media requests, the Coast Guard performed a cursory search of its records and found nothing serious pertaining to the Prestige.

"The ship was probably not fit to travel," said Emilio Martin, secretary general of the independent Spanish Federation of Shipping Pilots, which oversees traffic safety in Spanish ports.

The Prestige is registered in Liberia and managed by Universe Maritime Ltd., a Greek company. Chartered by a Swiss-based Russian oil trader, the Prestige left the Baltic Sea and was bound for Singapore when its single hull cracked last week in rough seas. The Spanish government has begun legal proceedings against the ship's backers and has jailed its captain, Apostolus Maguras. He is charged with harming the environment and disobeying authorities.

The Spanish government, frustrated by the layers of different companies connected to the Prestige, has demanded that one of the ship's insurers, London Steamship, deposit $60 million as a guarantee against possible fines and compensation claims. Preliminary cleanup costs and lost business due to closed fishing waters is estimated at $42 million, Matas said.

"We need more transparency" for who's to blame for this disaster, said Simon Cripps, director of the World Wildlife Federation marine program.

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