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 Monday, 6 January, 2003, 17:04 GMT
France prepares for long haul
Landes beach
Many beaches are closed while the clean-up goes on

In the Landes region, between Biarritz and Bordeaux, the local authorities are working flat out to contain the oil lumps which land on their beaches with every tide.

Oil lump
This lump is one of thousands
Lined with sand dunes and never-ending beaches, the area is a popular holiday destination with French families and foreign tourists.

For local people, tourism is their living and they fear that the Prestige disaster will be financial as well as environmental.

"We are very worried," says Franck Ducousso, an instructor at one of the many golf courses in the area.

"It is crucial for us that tourists do not decide to avoid this region."

The coastline is under constant watch. Each 30-kilometre (19-mile) section is inspected by local council workers every day; there are also aerial inspections by planes and helicopters.

In the small resort town of Moliets, volunteer firefighters and local authority workers have been collecting the oil lumps by hand at low tide.

All and sundry are allowed to sail in our waters, I am in favour of an efficient control of ships off our coasts

Moliets Mayor Anne-Marie Cancouet

Floating barrages and nets have also been deployed to protect the local streams and rich wildlife from contamination.

Moliets mayor Anne-Marie Cancouet says France is without doubt better prepared for the disaster than Spain, and will not be so badly affected.

Erika experience

This is partly because of the Erika disaster, three years ago, which resulted in the nationwide Polmar plan (from "pollution maree" or oil slick pollution), which involves the deployment of civilians and military personnel and specialist equipment, she says.

Landes beach
The beaches here are never-ending

"The experience of the Erika helped us a lot, even if we were not affected around here," she says.

The Erika sank off Brittany, whose rocky coastline proved extremely tricky to clean.

The job is marginally easier in the Landes, but the best way to clean up is, nevertheless, by hand.

Trawlers have been attempting to go out and collect the lumps in their nets, but have been hampered by bad weather.

Another problem is that the small lumps of oil currently plaguing the area's vast beaches have a density very close to that of water.

They float below the surface and are harder to spot from the planes, and hence to monitor.

"The wind is a big influence, but the influence of the currents is more important," Mrs Cancouet says.

"Large slicks float on the surface and are less threatening."

Oil analysis

Like many others, Mrs Cancouet expects the oil to continue arriving for months on coastal currents from Spain.

Enlarge image
Enlarge image

Not all of the oil is from the Prestige, as some tankers have taken the opportunity to wash out their cargo holds at sea in the belief that they will not be found out.

Mrs Cancouet says she has lumps regularly analysed by experts working on behalf of local gendarmes to check.

Although she supports the French Government's decision to impose control of tankers sailing in French waters, she wants them to go further and calls for a coastguard service to be created to inspect single or even double-hulled tankers.

"All and sundry are allowed to sail in our waters... I am in favour of efficient control of ships off our coasts," she says.

"We need serious control as more and more ships circulate. The country is virtually surrounded by water and it is a big problem."

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

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03 Jan 03 | Europe
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