Environmental fears mount in Italian cruise wreck

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ROME — Italy’s cruise liner tragedy turned into an environmental crisis Monday, as rough seas battering the stricken mega-ship raised fears that fuel might leak into pristine waters off Tuscany that are part of a protected sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales.

The ship’s jailed captain, meanwhile, lost the support of his Italian employer as he battled prosecutors’ claims that he caused the deadly wreck and abandoned a sinking ship before its 4,200 passengers and crew had been evacuated.

Waters that had remained calm for the first three days of the rescue turned choppy Monday, shifting the wreckage of the Costa Concordia a few centimeters (inches) and suspending divers’ searches for the 16 people still unaccounted for. At least six people were killed in the disaster.

Italy’s environmental minister raised the alarm about a potential environmental catastrophe if any of the 500,000 gallons (2,300 tons) of fuel begins to leak into the pristine waters off Giglio, which are popular with scuba divers and form part of the protected Tuscan archipelago.

“At the moment there haven’t been any fuel leaks, but we have to intervene quickly to avoid an environmental disaster,” Corrado Clini told RAI state radio.

Even before the accident there had been mounting calls from environmentalists to restrict passage of large ships in the area.

The ship’s operator, Costa Crociere SpA, has enlisted Smit of Rotterdam, Netherlands, one of the world’s biggest salvagers, to handle the removal of the 290-meter (1,000 foot) cruise liner. A study could come as early as Tuesday on how to extract the fuel safely.

Smit has a long track record of dealing with wrecks and leaks, including refloating grounded bulk carriers and securing drilling platforms in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A spokesman for Smit did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the Concordia salvage.

The Italian cruise operator said Capt. Francesco Schettino made an unauthorized deviation that caused the ship to crash late Friday into a reef off the tiny island of Giglio and capsize a few kilometers (miles) away near port.

The navigational “fly by” of Giglio was apparently made as a favor to the chief waiter who is from Giglio and whose parents live on the island, local media reported.

A judge on Tuesday is to decide whether Schettino should remain jailed.

“We are struck by the unscrupulousness of the reckless maneuver that the commander of the Costa Concordia made near the island of Giglio,” prosecutor Francesco Verusio told reporters. “It was inexcusable.”

The head of the U.N. agency on maritime safety, meanwhile, said lessons must be learned from the Concordia disaster 100 years after the Titanic rammed into an iceberg, leading to the first international convention on sea safety.

“We should seriously consider the lessons to be learnt and, if necessary, re-examine the regulations on the safety of large passenger ships in the light of the findings of the casualty investigation,” said Koji Sekimizu, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization.

Costa owner Carnival Corp. estimated that preliminary losses from having the Concordia out of operation for at least through 2012 would be between $85 million and $95 million, though it said there would be other costs as well. The company’s share price slumped more than 16 percent Monday.

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