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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 14:21 GMT
Spanish PM hints at Prestige errors
Oil-coated bird
The oil has taken a terrible toll on wildlife and fishing
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has conceded that mistakes may have been made in the handling of the Prestige oil disaster.

His comments came after weeks of mounting anger that his government has consistently underestimated the scale of the unfolding disaster.

Latest reports from the French mini-submarine which has found the tanker's wreckage say three more cracks have been detected in the hull, taking the total to at least nine.

It raises the possibility that the estimated 60,000 metric tons of oil still on board may continue to ooze from the wreck for weeks to come.


It's possible we made errors, but we've made every effort humanly possible to confront a tragedy

Jose Maria Aznar
Spanish PM
The government had hoped the oil would solidify on the ocean floor where the ship lies, 240km (130 nautical miles) of Spain's north-western coast.

The news that oil has been seen seeping from the cracked wreckage served only to intensify anger against the government, which responded with its first admission of possible blame.

"It's possible we made errors," Mr Aznar told Spanish public television.

"But we've made every effort humanly possible to confront a tragedy and a catastrophe we've never yet known in our country, one no country is prepared for."

Jose Maria Aznar
Critics accuse Aznar of an inadequate response
Fishermen and environmental campaigners have been most vocal critics of the government, but public anger has been growing since the government's reassurances early in the crisis.

First it issued optimistic statements about the scale of the leak and its likely impact.

Then it failed to mobilise troops - relying instead on hundreds of Spanish and foreign volunteers to mop up, using what little equipment they had to hand.

Chaotic

Seven-thousand troops have finally been called in, weeks after the disaster.

The BBC's Claire Marshall in Madrid says the anger and isolation felt by the people of Galicia at the chaotic government response forced Mr Aznar to defend his administration's handling of the crisis.

Confirmation of fresh cracks in the wreckage was given by Mr Aznar's deputy, Mariano Rajoy.

"Now we have to evaluate how much fuel could be escaping into the sea and if there is a chance of it solidifying," he told a news conference.

The ship is lying in 3,500 metres (12,000 feet) of water. The two parts of the wreck are 4km (two miles) apart.

Some Spanish newspapers suggest that only 50,000 tons of the original 77,000-ton cargo are left in the tanker's two sections.

La Voz de Galicia, quoting what it said was a confidential regional government report, said a total of 30,000 tons had now escaped.

If the oil fails to congeal, it presents a potential salvage nightmare.

Trying to pump the oil from such a depth would prove technically difficult if not impossible, some experts warned.


Imagine half a Titanic on the seabed

Bruno Faure
French expert
"At 120 metres, you can use divers but that's impossible at 3,500 metres," said Bruno Faure, from the French company involved in the Erika tanker salvage in 1999.

Instead of divers, remote-controlled submersible craft would have to be used, but even that poses problems.

"The electronic instruments are not built to withstand water pressure at 3,500 metres," Mr Faure said.

Other suggestions included burying the entire wreck in a concrete sarcophagus - the method used to seal the Chernobyl nuclear power station.


Nothing is impossible

Serge Ellana
Norwegian expert
"It would be very difficult and probably very costly," Mr Faure said. "Imagine half a Titanic on the seabed."

Or an attempt could be made to seal the hull breaches.

Other experts were more upbeat.

"Nothing is impossible," said Norwegian expert Serge Ellana of the firm Stolt Offshore. "A few years ago it was considered impossible to work 2,500 metres down."

A scientific commission has been set up to try and find out how much oil is still spilling out and whether it might stillsolidify.

Troops and civilians work together
It took weeks for troops to join the volunteers
Tens of thousands of fishermen in Galicia have been left without work. They are eligible for government compensation, which does not cover the lucrative Christmas market they would have been selling to.

Mr Aznar has stressed that the Spanish economy is well-placed to deal with the disaster.

"Fortunately we have a solid, strong and stable economy and therefore... we can deal with this situation and deal with it in a context where our economy will continue to be stable," he said.

Portugal and France remain on alert for pollution.

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

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09 Dec 02 | Europe
06 Dec 02 | Europe
03 Dec 02 | Europe
19 Nov 02 | Science/Nature
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