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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 16:33 GMT
Struggle to save a way of life
Clean up operation on beach in north west spain
Spaniards toil to clean oil from affected beaches
Stephen Sackur

Every tide brings in more heavy, thick oil. This beautiful coastline is in grave danger.

There is something unbelievably depressing about being on this once magnificent beach. The stench from the oil is truly sickening.

And then, when you actually pick up the seaweed that is soaked in the stuff, you realise just how glutinous, how thick and how heavy it is and any marine life, any seabirds caught up in this simply will not stand a chance.

An oiled seabird in north west spain
A widlife disaster
Look closely at the waves and the rocks, and you see the black sheen everywhere.

Seabirds are suffering - from gulls to cormorants - the destruction of a renowned marine environment has begun.

The stricken Prestige had been towed about 150 miles off shore. She broke up on Tuesday morning. The big question - how much of her 70,000 tons of oil has been released.

And the trouble is, there is plenty more of this oil out there just waiting to come in.

Spanish naval cadets - young men and women - and emergency teams are working together, trying to get some of the oil off the beach here.

The government is wrestling with a crisis that will cost millions and threatens livelihoods right along this coast.

But local communities are not impressed - they feel the Spanish Government didn't react quickly.

Inquest begins

They wonder why this tanker was towed around in the ocean when no effort was made to take the oil off, and put it somewhere else on to another boat alongside.

Stricken tanker Prestige breaks in two
Some of the oil in the tanker may not leak
And there is also a feeling that the resources, even now, are not being put into this mission as they should be, to try to get the oil off the coastline.

I just saw one of Spain's cabinet ministers down here. I said "Are things under control?" He looked very testy and said: "Yes, of course they're under control."

Nobody here truly believes that yet and, if more thousands of tons of oil are to come ashore here, then they are going to have to plough many more resources into the rescue effort if marine life isn't to suffer terribly badly.

Cargo intact

The salvage crew say they think much of the oil stayed intact inside the tanker.

If that is true, and it sinks to the bottom of the sea - that will be very good news, partly because it is so cold as you get lower down that the oil begins to solidify. At that point it may not be able to leak out of the tanks - at least not to any great extent.

So that is the hope they are clinging on to. But the fact is, it is likely that thousands of tons of oil at some point will probably escape and come ashore here, and other places around the north-western coast of Spain.

However you dress it up, this looks like a terrible disaster unfolding.

In Caion, the fishing boats are idle - all fishing banned until further notice. It should be a busy season for crab and shellfish.

Instead these communities face ruin.

Spain's coast and maritime fauna are threatened by the oil spill from the break-up of the Prestige

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