Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Stricken Oil Tanker Breaks in Half

A leaking oil tanker carrying more than 70,000 tonnes of fuel broke in two this morning off Spain's north-western coast.

The Bahamas-flagged Prestige, which began spilling oil last Wednesday, split in half about 152 miles off Spain's Galician coast, in a development which environmentalists had warned would cause an ecological catastrophe twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska

"The ship split in two at 8 o'clock this morning [0700 GMT]," a spokeswoman for the Spanish central government in Galicia told the Reuters news agency.

The Prestige ran into trouble during a violent storm last Wednesday. Already the disaster has led to the spillage of some 5,000 tonnes of fuel oil near one of Spain's richest fisheries. The government has warned that the oil spilled so far could seep down into the many inlets that characterise the Galician coast.

On Monday, a salvage company tried to prevent the tanker from splitting by turning it so that its ruptured hull no longer faced the waves. The ship lies roughly on the borderline of areas for which Spain and Portugal have responsibility for maritime rescue operations.

Portugal and Spain had barred salvagers from towing the ship to any of their ports to protect their fishing and tourism industries from further damage.

Last night the Dutch salvage company in charge of the rescue operation began an attempt to tow the Prestige towards Africa.

A spokesman for the company, Smit International, had said it would keep the tanker heading south until it found somewhere it could attempt a transfer of the cargo, but admitted that that probably would not happen until the tanker got to Africa.

Environmentalists have demanded that the Prestige should be bombed and burned before it is allowed to sink.

"If it sinks to the bottom it could still be the worst environmental disaster we have ever seen," warned Miguel Angel Valladares of the Spanish branch of the WWF, formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature.

"The best thing is obviously to take the fuel off but, if not, it is better to burn it and pollute the atmosphere than to sink it and pollute the ocean floor. That would ruin the seabed and keep sending pollution in towards the coast for years."

In a twist that threatens to exacerbate the Anglo-Spanish row over Gibraltar, Spain has blamed Britain for the disaster, claiming the ageing London-insured ship had been heading for Gibraltar because it did not meet EU security regulations to dock at any other European port.