Monday, 21 February 2011

High Tides Add to French Oil Slick Woes

The skipper of the Mar-Mar, smallest fishing boat in the oddest flotilla to set out from this picturesque port near the French-Spanish border, was glad his daily catch was so poor. Riding beside five other requisitioned vessels, including ocean-going trawlers, Didier Pépédère had been combing the Atlantic off southern Aquitaine for signs of pollution from the oil tanker, the Prestige, which sank last November.

'Some of the bigger boats have picked up oil-soaked debris but the sea was too rough for the Mar-Mar and we didn't see anything,' he said, pacing the nine-metre vessel whose blue hull was black with oil. 'Perhaps this is the first sign of an end to a nightmare that has wrecked our way of life.'

Even a hint of good news is rare along more than 160 miles of superb beaches stretching north and south of Biarritz, a favourite British holiday zone where the entire coastline is still out of bounds to the public in the run-up to Easter. Squads of workers carrying buckets and spades walk the sands every day picking up lumps of clotted oil, brought in by the tides.

Up to 12,000 tonnes of the Prestige's fuel is reportedly still floating in dozens of patches in the Bay of Biscay, not counting another 37,000 tonnes in the tanker's reservoirs, 3,500 metres below the surface. About 25,000 tonnes floated free before a mini-submarine sealed 17 cracks in the tanker's hull, split into two sections a mile apart.

The whole coast faces a new crisis this week when the highest tides of the year are due. With strong winds, frequent in this area, the tides could undo months of effort after reports that oil had drifted to previously unspoilt sands in southern Brittany.

Summer-like weather over the past week underlined the frustration facing councils in three coastal départements (counties): Gironde, Landes and Pyrenées-Atlantiques, where as much as 20 per cent of holidaymakers are from Britain. Hotels have delayed their openings, holiday bookings have dropped by more than a half, while the oyster trade faces ruin for the second time since the Erika went down off Brittany in 1999 unleashing 12,000 tonnes of toxic fuel that took more than a year to clear up along the rocky coastline.

Here at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where fishermen have been co-operating with their colleagues from Galicia, Spain, in trying to stop oil floating ashore, the main beaches usually look impeccable after the day's beach-combing.

But there is a nauseous smell of fuel in the fishing port where an army squad operates a permanent decontamination centre while metal barriers stop visitors from putting a foot on the sand where mechanical diggers and scrapers back up the clean-up patrols.

The situation is repeated at all the top resorts including Biarritz, Cap Ferret and Biscarrosse where a thousand men, including trustee prisoners, have been involved in clearing-up operations. At nearby Guéthary, where an army patrol in white and yellow overalls gathered lumps of clotted black fuel, the mayor, Albert Larrouset, said he was desperate to open for Easter to save local industries, including many camping sites, from bankruptcy.

'But we daren't take a risk until we are assured the fuel is not poisonous,' he said, referring to fears that the Prestige's cargo, still being tested by chemists, was highly toxic and could cause cancer. His resort boasted some of the best surfing conditions in Europe but uniformed police patrolled beaches to arrest surfers as they came ashore, handing out pay-on-the-spot fines of up to €45(£30).

While mayors last week petitioned state authorities to lift the crippling ban, controversy over the circumstances of the Prestige's sinking continued. Inhabitants of Galicia accuse the Spanish government of recklessly ordering the sinking tanker to be towed out to sea rather than beaching it and pumping out waste fuel that was being exported to the Far East from Baltic and Russian refineries.

Since November, hundreds of fishermen on both sides of the border have depended for income largely on being requisitioned to gather in oil slicks located by air force and naval patrols. The work is rewarded with a daily wage of €400 (£270) for each crewmen, insufficient to compensate for the ruin caused to traditional tunny and mackerel catches.

Because the slick has broken up into thousands of small pools, the most successful recuperation technique has used shrimp nets to pick up the floating lumps of oil, but with the hot weather this has become difficult. The fuel has liquefied and experiments have started to gather it with micro-mesh nets designed to catch embryonic eels.

Although no decision has been taken on how to pump the remaining fuel from the Prestige, a solution will probably be found long before any action is taken against the owners and the freight company. After the Greek-skippered tanker went down on 19 November, investigators said it was almost impossible to pin down responsibility for the 20-year-old ship registered in the Bahamas. Compensation claims are unlikely to be sorted out for many years.