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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 22:26 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 sunk after breaking apart, taking thousands of tons of fuel with it.


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

The bow of the Prestige was the first to go under water, followed a few hours later by the rear of the vessel, which had been carrying at least 70,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil.

There are fears of a massive ecological disaster if all the oil escapes from the Bahamas-registered tanker, which was about 250 kilometres (150 miles) from the Spanish coast when it started to break up.

A spokesman for the Dutch salvage company Smit Salvage 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.

"And the low temperature of the sea will hopefully slow down the speed at which the oil escapes from those compartments which have split," Daniel Yates told BBC News Online.

Open in new window : Sinking tanker
Pictures of the Prestige oil slick

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

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.

Enlarge image
Enlarge image

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

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.

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.

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

A diplomatic row has also erupted between Spain and Britain over responsibility for the maritime safety of the tanker.

The European Commission has declared that catastrophe could have been averted if governments had enforced new rules which oblige authorities to inspect at least a quarter of all ships entering their ports.

The legislation targets ships like the Prestige, an older, single-hulled vessel suspected of carrying a so-called flag of convenience.

French President Jacques Chirac said: "I am horrified by the inability of those in charge, politically, nationally and particularly at European level, to take action to stem the laxity which permits these ships fit only for the dustbin to carry on.

"Now we must urgently take draconian measures, both severe and serious, even if they harm the interests of certain companies whose interests are not worth defending."

The break-up of the Bahamas-registered Prestige has also raised further questions over the issue of registering a vessel in a state with which it does not necessarily have any connection.

It allows ship-owners to avoid certain taxes on their profits and avoid international regulations on matters like crew qualifications.

'Coast of death'

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

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

Andrew, UK

The Greek captain of the 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 80,000 tonnes of crude oil when it ran aground near La Coruna.

The BBC's Clare Marshall
"An ugly slick of heavy fuel oil estimated to be more than 100 miles long"
Gustavo de Aristigui of the Spanish foreign ministry
"Tugboats managed to tow the ship as far away as possible"
Louise Savares of the WWF in Madrid
"We have a lot of oil close to the coast"
Spain's coast and maritime fauna are threatened by the oil spill from the break-up of the Prestige

Key stories



See also:

11 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
23 Mar 99 | Americas
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