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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 16:59 GMT
Spain tanker leaks heavily on seabed
Oil-coated bird
The oil has taken a terrible toll on wildlife and fishing
The wrecked tanker Prestige, lying on the Atlantic seabed off Spain's north-west coast, is still leaking nearly 125 metric tons of oil a day, the government has revealed.

The news appears to dash hopes that the huge quantity of heavy fuel oil still on board - an estimated 60,000 tons - would solidify in the near-freezing temperatures of the ocean depths.


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

Jose Maria Aznar
Spanish PM
Fishing and wildlife along Spain's Galician coast has already been devastated by oil which poured from the Prestige's ruptured tanks before it split in two and sank.

Latest surveys of the wreckage by the French mini-submarine, Nautile, have found 15 holes - up from nine at the last count.

The announcement came only hours after Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar conceded for the first time that mistakes may have been made in the handling of the Prestige oil disaster.

Jose Maria Aznar
Critics accuse Aznar of an inadequate response
His government has faced weeks of mounting anger, and stands accused of consistently underestimating the scale of the unfolding disaster.

The government had hoped the oil would remain inside the wreck where it lies, 240km (130 nautical miles) off Spain's north-western coast.

The leaking oil is taking a day to reach to the surface, say officials.

Confirmation that the cargo appears to be failing to congeal presents a potential salvage nightmare.

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

"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.


Imagine half a Titanic on the seabed Quote Here

Bruno Faure
French salvageeexpert
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.

"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.


Nothing is impossible

Serge Ellana
Norwegian expert
Other experts were more upbeat about the chances that some sort of salvage operation might work.

"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 Spanish scientific commission has been set up to investigate the situation.

The news that oil is still leaking is expected to intensify anger against the government, which had already made its first admission of a possibly inadequate response.

Troops and civilians work together
It took weeks for troops to join the volunteers
"It's possible we made errors," Mr Aznar told Spanish public television on Monday evening.

"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."

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.

Seven-thousand troops have finally been called in, after a long delay.

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.

Confidential

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.

Tens of thousands of fishermen in Galicia have been left without work. They are eligible for government compensation, which does not take into account the lucrative Christmas market they would have been selling to.

Portugal and France remain on alert for pollution.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Claire Marshall
"Thousands of volunteers are working around the clock"
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:

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