Sunken tanker still leaking as new slick nears Spain


Workers clean up oil sludge from the Nemina beach in Muxia, northwestern Spain, Saturday, after the Bahamas-registered 'Prestige' oil tanker broke in two and sank into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain last Nov. 19 spilling around 6,000 tons (1.6 million gallons) that has now already contamined large areas of the coast. A second slick, of some 9,000 tons (2.4 million gallons) is poised to hit the northwestern shore at any time, causing more enviromental and economic distress.

(AP Photo/Carmelo Alen)
Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 11:01 p.m.

MADRID, Spain - An enormous oil slick advanced toward one of Europe's busiest fishing regions Saturday as mariners and fishermen raced to intercept it with floating barriers and oil-skimming boats.

The giant, multimillion-gallon sheen bobbed in the waves off the northwest Galician coast Saturday. The region has been mopping up its beaches and rocky coastline for the past two weeks after the first slick from the tanker Prestige washed ashore.

On Saturday under cloudy skies, hundreds of volunteers in protective white jumpsuits, masks and gloves continued shoveling oil-soaked, mucky sand into plastic-lined buckets for hauling away. The face masks and gloves shielded skin and lungs from the sulfur in the fuel oil.

Offshore, half a dozen boats skimmed oil from the ocean, while maritime officials and fishermen deployed more floating, orange barriers between the advancing slicks and the coast. Tthe slicks contained about 2.4 million gallons of toxic fuel oil.

Spaniards viewing the tarry slicks through binoculars steeled themselves for the "black tide" they have dreaded since the tanker broke apart Nov. 13 in a storm and sank. The Prestige was carrying about 20 million gallons, and about 4 million gallons seeped out.

"It's a disaster, just a disaster," fisherman Jose Ramon Montero, 26, said at Cabo Finisterre lighthouse while looking out at the Atlantic.

Residents gathered there at first light to glimpse the shiny black stain, the largest slick so far. By late afternoon, drifting oil masses that apparently separated from a larger slick were just offshore Cabo Tourinan and other points south to some of the river estuaries famed as fishing grounds and shellfish beds.

As darkness approached, it was unclear when or where the oil would land.

Previous slicks from the Bahamas-flagged Prestige, which ruptured near Cabo Finisterre in a storm, prompted the government to ban fishing and shellfish harvesting - the region's staple industry - along a 310-mile stretch of coast. The initial damages were estimated to be $42 million.

Officials estimated the Prestige spilled 1.6 million gallons when its hull cracked and at least the same amount again as it drifted offshore seeking permission to enter a Spanish port to offload its cargo. Permission was denied and the tanker finally splitting in two and sank Nov. 19 about 150 miles off Cabo Finisterre.

Environmentalists claim the tanker actually leaked some 5.3 million gallons.

Seven anti-pollution boats from Spain, France, Holland and Britain have skimmed about 800,000 gallons of oil from the sea. A Norwegian ship was due to arrive shortly and Russia reportedly offered to send two others.

Fishermen are desperate to keep the "black tide" from the pristine rivers that mix with the Atlantic Ocean below Cabo Finisterre. In the lower estuaries, they wound sheets of plastic around submerged mussels cages and worried how long it would take for clam and cockle harvests to recover from contamination.

The government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has maintained that the oil which sank with the Prestige would solidify in the chilling cold and high pressure of the deep sea.

However, the wreck continues leaking oil from its resting place 2.2 miles down on the ocean floor. Signs of fresh oil coming from the sunken tanker were detected by French and Portuguese reconnaissance planes, but Spain has said that is the ship's own fuel and lubricant.

A small French research submarine was to arrive today to inspect the wreckage.

The government plans to sue the shipowner and its insurance company for damages.

The accident prompted Spain and France to seek to tighten European Union legislation concerning the ocean transport of hazardous cargo.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top