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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 13:15 GMT
Q&A: Oil spill clean-up

Dr Simon Boxall, from Southampton University's Oceanography Centre, looks at the problems caused by the breaking-up and sinking of the Prestige tanker off the coast of Spain.

Do you support the view that oil still in the tanker on the sea bed is relatively "safe".

Not at all. It is a time bomb waiting to go off. The oil will be "solidified" as a result of the pressures and temperatures down in the deep ocean (in fact it will be more of a gel).

However, even in the deep ocean metal rots and there are deep "gravity" currents which are sporadic and violent and capable of disturbing the ship. AT some time - in a week, next year, in a hundred years - the oil will resurface. In the deep ocean with no light and limited bacterial action it will not decay and disperse so it is just sitting there. Even in its gel form it is lighter than the surrounding water and is being held by the ship's hull - when that fails it will float.

In the prevailing tides and winds, where else in Europe might be hit by the slick?

If we are lucky it will remain where it is. Also if we are lucky the winds will be offshore when the other 77,000 tonnes emerges. If not it will be a new large disaster. But remember that many other nations fish in this region and they will all be very badly effected, especially France and Portugal.

What would make the clean-up operation easier?

Flat seas, currents flowing away from the shore and thin oil. Unfortunately, in this case they have heavy seas and thick fuel oil. In such situations more equipment and people will not make much difference - the right equipment and experienced people will.

How long is a clean-up operation of this kind likely to last?

It tends to be influenced by the tides, winds and currents, which either push the oil towards the coast or relatively harmlessly out to sea.

Even though the tanker has sunk, oil will still continue to pour from its tanks and cause an even bigger problem.

The coastline clean-up typically takes up to six months. The environmental impact of the spill will be monitored for five or more years.

What measures can be adopted to avoid such accidents in the future?

The oceans are vast and unpredictable and will always claim victims - and people will always make mistakes. But technology and design can help.

Modern vessels are stronger and have double skins to reduce the chance of a major spill. Unfortunately, the Prestige is from a generation of vessels that causes most of these kinds of incident. Scrapping these vessels in favour of the modern fleets will reduce accidents resulting in major spills.

How serious is this spill compared to the Exxon Valdez spill 13 years ago?

The volume of oil on board is twice that of the Exxon Valdez, but things are not as bad in this case. The Valdez went aground in an enclosed area with little opportunity for the oil to disperse - the Prestige is in relatively open ocean. The Valdez spill occurred in a very cold climate which slowed the oil's natural decay rate. In addition there have been a number of advances and lessons learnt in the years since Valdez.

How much do these operations usually cost and who pays?

It varies according to the circumstances. If the spill disperses and threatens limited areas then the clean-up bill might only run into a few million dollars. That is before taking into account compensation to fishermen, local councils and other affected groups, legal costs and fines.

Insurance will cover some of the cost but the rest comes down to the individual company. The initial costs are usually borne by the nation the incident occurs in and are then reclaimed. Consortia of oil companies and tanker owners also have emergency funds and resources such as Oil Spill Response Ltd which rapidly swing into action whenever one of their shipments is involved in an incident, and are often made available even when they are not.

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

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