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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 14:34 GMT
Stricken oil tanker sinks
Worker uses special vacuum to clean oil from the beach at Malpica, northern Spain
Oil has been washing up on beaches in Galicia
A stricken tanker which has been leaking oil off the north-west coast of Spain has begun to sink after breaking apart.


If it sinks, there will be a time bomb at the bottom of the sea

Greenpeace official Maria Jose Caballero
Salvage officials say the rear section of the tanker - which is carrying at least 70,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil - is now underwater.

"The aft is completely submerged and it's just a matter of time before the front part follows - it could be within 15 minutes or in a few hours, but it's inevitable," a spokesman for the Dutch salvage company Smit Salvage told BBC News Online from Rotterdam.

The failure of the salvage company to keep the damaged tanker afloat has increased fears of a huge ecological disaster for the region.

The salvage team had struggled for six days to save the vessel, the Prestige, which was about 250 kilometres (150 miles) from the Spanish coast when it started to break up.


'Prestige'

Built: 1976
Weight: 42,000t
Cargo: 77,000t oil
Owners: Mare Shipping
Registered: Bahamas


Smit Salvage spokesman Daniel Yates said at least some of the compartments containing oil would go to the sea bed intact, lessening the impact of the spill, but that it was impossible to say how many.

He added that the low temperatures of the sea at present would hopefully slow down the speed at which the oil escaped from those compartments that had split.

Several thousand tons of oil have leaked from the Prestige since its hull cracked during a storm last Wednesday, much of which has washed up on the coast of Galicia.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said there had been another rupture in a compartment when the vessel split in two early on Tuesday morning, but no further breaches since then.

Environmentalists warn that if the entire cargo spills, the resulting damage could be double that caused in the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989 - one of the worst ever.

Economic impact

The Spanish authorities have suspended fishing along the 100-kilometre stretch of coastline from Roncudo to Cape Tourinan, and financial compensation has been promised to local fishermen.

Major oil spills
Jan 1993: 85,000 tons off the Shetland Islands
Dec 1992: 80,000 tons near La Coruna port in Spain
March 1989: 38,800 tons off Alaskan coast
1979: 160,000 tons off Tobago
March 1967: 119,000 tons off the UK

Whole communities depend on fishing in the area, which is famous for its shellfish, octopus and crabs.

Spain has several tugs as well as helicopters and spotter planes in the area, and the government is meeting in the town of La Coruna to decide how best to contain the spill.

As local residents pushed ahead with an emergency clean-up operation, other European countries offered assistance in response to a Spanish appeal.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar - under fire from environmentalists for what they consider to be a timid response to the disaster - has vowed to make whoever is responsible pay for Spain's worst shipping disaster in 10 years.

"If it sinks, there will be a time bomb at the bottom of the sea", Greenpeace spokesman Maria Jose Caballero told Reuters news agency.

"We have been saying that they need to extract the fuel oil to avoid an ecological catastrophe of major proportions".

Barriers being set up
Protective barriers have been put up

To the south, Portugal is bracing for the possibility that oil could foul its Atlantic beaches and rich fishing grounds.

It had rejected the possibility of the crippled tanker entering one of its ports.

A diplomatic row has also erupted between Spain and Britain over responsibility for the maritime safety of the stricken tanker - a single-hulled vessel from a class of tanker the EU plans to ban from its waters.

Coast of death

Most of the vessel's crew were airlifted off last week.


Companies make money by hiding behind flags of convenience in the event of trouble

Andrew, UK

The Greek captain of the Bahamas-registered vessel, Apostolos Mangouras, has been remanded in custody, accused of failing to co-operate with salvage crews and harming the environment.

Spain's north-west coastline is known as the "Coast of Death" because of the many shipwrecks that have occurred there.

The worst in recent years was in 1992, when the Greek tanker Aegean Sea lost 74,000 tonnes of crude oil when it ran aground near La Coruna.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Robert Parsons
"The destruction of the marine environment has begun"
The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"This beautiful coastline is in grave danger"
Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
"There is no further breach of the tanks"
Sebastian Losada, Greenpeace
"They have been painting the coast because they were moving the vessel"
Spain's coast and maritime fauna are threatened by the oil spill from the break-up of the Prestige

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See also:

19 Nov 02 | Europe
19 Nov 02 | Science/Nature
19 Nov 02 | Business
19 Nov 02 | Europe
11 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
23 Mar 99 | Americas
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