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BBC's Gavin Hewitt reports
"France recognises it's facing an ecological disaster"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 5 January, 2000, 22:53 GMT
Oil spill damage worsens

Soldiers take a break as they remove oil from the beach at Tharon, Brittany

The oil spill from a tanker off coast of France may cost TotalFina, which chartered the vessel, up to $100m.

The news comes as a French wildlife organisation estimates that up to 100,000 birds may have died in what is being described as the biggest ever ecological disaster for Europe's seabirds.

The tanker, the Erika, spilled more than 10m litres of oil into the ocean on December 12. Much of it has now washed up on France's Atlantic coast.

TotalFina, a French company, has already put more than $6m into the emergency clean-up operation. Large sums have been spent on an oil company compensation fund and programmes to help the affected areas recover.

The greatest cost will probably be incurred by the retrieval of the oil remaining in the Erika's tanks.

Erika's wreckage 'not leaking'

The 23m litres of oil believed to be in the sunken wreck has been a serious worry for the French authorities.

A robot has been deployed to examine the state of the tanks.

Facts about the Erika oil spill
350km of coastline affected
100,000 birds may have been killed
11m litres of oil spilled
23m litres remain in the wreckage

Initial reports are favourable. Images from the underwater robot suggest that the tanks are unlikely to leak.

But the BBC's Jon Sopel in Paris says the damage has already been done. Fishermen, oyster farmers and the tourism industry will all be hit.

The first of many lawsuits has been filed against those responsible for the maintenance of the tanker.

'An ecological catastrophe'

Violent storms and currents battering the affected coastline during December conspired to turn the oil spillage into an ecological catastrophe.

Thousands of tonnes of oil are washing up on a vast area of French coastline. Some 350km is affected.

A dead bird in a pool of oil

Despite a rescue operation, 21,000 seabirds are known to have died in the disaster.

The Society for the Study and Protection of Nature in Brittany estimates that the full figure could be more like 100,000.

Spokesman Bernard Cadiou pointed to research carried out after the Amoco Cadiz oil spillage in 1978.

"Scientists experimented by leaving the bodies of dead birds at the scene of the wreckage. Only 23% arrived on the coast. The same coefficient would give us about 100,000 dead birds today," Mr Cadiou said.

About 90% of the dead birds are guillemots, but puffins, gannets and kittiwakes have also been killed.

The bird's wings become coated in thick black oil and, unable to fly, they perish quickly from poisoning.

The scale of the disaster means the French have had to call in help from abroad. Hundreds of seabirds were airlifted to Exeter, in England, but many died en route.

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See also:
31 Dec 99 |  Europe
Oil firm offers clean-up cash
28 Dec 99 |  Europe
Jospin pledges action on oil tankers
28 Dec 99 |  UK
Oil birds arrive in UK
26 Dec 99 |  Europe
Oil spill takes its toll
17 Dec 99 |  Europe
Clean-up crews battle 'thick' oil slick

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