Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Gales threaten to drive slicks inshore

Seven oil slicks from the sunken tanker Prestige threatened the Spanish coast yesterday, though officials insisted there was no evidence that its tanks had imploded to release a deadly cargo of 60,000 tonnes of fuel oil that went down with it.

"There have been no new oil spills since the boat went down," Arsenio Fernandez de Mesa, the government's representative in the north-western region of Galicia, said.

Of the seven known slicks, officials said one was two miles from shore, two were 40 miles away and four had formed 130 miles off Spain's north-west coast, where the ageing Prestige went down on Tuesday.

Carlos del Almo, environment chief for the Galicia regional government, said the next wave of oil, released just before the tanker sank, would reach the same 185 mile stretch of coast that was blackened by a previous slick at the weekend.

Gale force winds helped break the slicks into smaller parts and push them north and slightly east yesterday. But the fierce winds, gusting up to 60mph, were expected to change direction overnight and drive the oil towards land at a much faster rate.

Britain, meanwhile, insisted that Loyola de Palacio, the Spanish transport commissioner, retract statements claiming Gibraltar had failed to carry out security checks on the vessel. The government wrote to Ms Palacio, whose sister Ana is Spain's foreign minister, demanding she admit that she had been wrong to blame Gibraltar. Ms de Palacio not only refused to retract but repeated her criticisms.

"If EU legislation had been in place it would have meant the Prestige would have been subject to a vigorous inspection in Gibraltar this summer," she told reporters.

She added that she had asked Britain to provide a detailed account of how the EU's current rules were being applied in Gibraltar.

Ms de Palacio also angered Portugal by claiming the Prestige, which was in that country's air-sea rescue waters when it sank, was a Portuguese problem.

But, as tar-covered seabirds began to appear in northern Portugal, environmentalists there criticised Spain for towing the disabled tanker south and closer to their own shores.

"If the black tide hits the coast here it will cause an ecological disaster of unimaginable proportions," Luis Macedo, head of Portugal's Esposende nature reserve said.

A bitter debate continued to rage over whether the 60,000 tonnes on board the Prestige had sunk to the seabed and frozen into solid, unmovable blocks or would start leaking and float to the surface.

Cleanup crews were scooping sludge from the more than 90 Spanish beaches affected so far. The environment minister, Jaume Matas, estimated the damage caused so far at £30m.

In Madrid, the development ministry said it had started legal action against the Prestige's owners to seek compensation.

The EU yesterday released £80m of funds to pay compensation to the more than 1,000 fishermen forced to stay in port until further notice.