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Freighter With Toxic Cargo Spills Fuel on Fragile S. African Coast

September 14, 2002|From Times Wire Services

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A blazing freighter carrying toxic chemicals spilled some of its 1,300 tons of fuel Friday onto a South African coastline renowned for its wildlife, officials said.

Pounded by high seas, the Italian freighter Jolly Rubino ruptured at least one of its fuel tanks after it beached Thursday near the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, a sanctuary for birds and rare wetlands fauna on South Africa's northeast coast about 370 miles east of Johannesburg.

The vessel's cargo included 335,000 gallons of fuel oil, 80,000 gallons of gasoline and a variety of toxic chemicals including alpha-naphthylamine, which can be particularly harmful to the environment. A 10-yard-wide strip of oil was spotted leaking from the ship Friday, according to a company working to rescue the vessel.

Authorities said the 30,000-ton ship lost 70 cargo containers over its side, and they warned the public not to touch any drums found on the beach.

The ship's 22 crew members abandoned ship after it was crippled by a fire that began Tuesday. Strong winds and high seas hampered salvage operators' attempts to board the ship and put out the blaze, but they said they would try again today.

The vessel is about seven miles south of an estuary leading to the main lake of the wildlife sanctuary. A serious oil slick could pollute the nearby Umfolozi River and the sensitive estuary, which is blocked by sand, said Jeff Gaisford, a spokesman for the provincial parks board. It could also damage nearby mangroves, crocodiles and hippopotamuses. "If the thing falls apart there, then we've got a big problem. It's sort of at that make-or-break stage at the moment," he said.

The park is recognized by the United Nations as an internationally important wildlife site.

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