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Spain Rebuffs Allegations of Inadequate Response to Oil Spill

Deputy prime minister tells critics that government decisions have been timely.

November 24, 2002|From Reuters

LA CORUNA, Spain — Government officials rejected allegations Saturday that they have responded slowly and clumsily to an oil spill from a sunken tanker that has polluted hundreds of miles of coastline.

At a stormy news conference in the northern port of La Coruna, Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said government decisions have been timely and resources adequate.

When one journalist said critics were calling Spain's handling of the crisis incompetent, Rajoy, the minister in charge of dealing with the spill, replied, "I don't agree."

In the week since thick fuel oil from the tanker Prestige began hitting beaches in northwestern Spain, the government has faced growing criticism from environmental groups and the media that efforts to protect the coast have been inadequate and the cleanup slow and disorganized.

The 26-year-old single-hulled tanker, ruptured in a storm Nov. 13, left a trail of oil while being towed out to sea before sinking Tuesday in deep waters. The oil has washed up on beaches and rocks over a 250-mile stretch of the Galician coast, coating seabirds and endangering shellfish stocks vital to the local economy.

Rajoy blamed several days of storms off northwestern Spain for some problems. He said a French and a Dutch ship able to scoop oil from the sea were confined to port because they could not operate in high waves.

"It is not a question of us not having ships available," he said, expressing the hope that the weather would improve enough for ships to leave port Monday.

Brushing aside questions over whether Madrid was too slow to seek outside help, Rajoy said a German cleanup ship was due Monday and ships from Britain and Belgium on Tuesday.

Environmentalists have complained that volunteers have not been allowed to take part in the cleanup. Rajoy announced that cleanup teams would be doubled to nearly 900 people and that volunteers would be given work.

About 900 tons of oil have been scraped off the beaches, and Spain has 15 miles of barriers ready to try to protect the coast, he said.

Outside the news conference, activists from the environmental group Greenpeace held up a banner with "Oil Kills" daubed on it in oil, next to buckets of fuel oil recovered from the beaches. "They should be working more quickly, with more resources, and they should remove the slick at sea before it gets to the coast," said Juan Lopez, director of Greenpeace Spain.

Rajoy said the government estimated that the Prestige had spilled about 11,000 tons of fuel oil, far less than the 20,000 tons estimated by Greenpeace. He said the spill could not be described as a "black tide," the Spanish phrase for a large oil slick, but only as "very localized" patches.

Rajoy said experts believed that the rest of the Prestige's 77,000-ton cargo of fuel oil, which went down with the ship, turned into a nearly solid mass in the chilly ocean depths -- meaning it is unlikely to bubble to the surface.

A French mini-submarine will arrive in the "coming days" to investigate whether oil is still leaking from the ship, he said.

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