- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

MADRID A damaged tanker carrying more than 20 million gallons of fuel oil broke in two off northwest Spain and sank yesterday, threatening an environmental disaster.
The Bahamas-flagged Prestige vanished into the ocean at midday, said Lars Walder, a spokesman for the Dutch salvage company SMIT. The ship's oil containers seemed to remain intact, but the toxic fuel was likely to seep out.
An environmentalist warned the wreckage would be like a "time bomb" about 2 miles down on the ocean floor. Nearly 1.3 million to 2.6 million gallons of fuel oil lost in the initial spill last week have already tainted miles of Spanish beaches, threatening rich fishing grounds and devastating wildlife.
If the ship lost its entire cargo of fuel oil, the spill would be nearly twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. About 10.92 million gallons of crude oil were lost from the Valdez.
The tanker ruptured last Wednesday during a storm and was towed 150 miles out to sea. The crew was airlifted to safety.
The incident caused friction between Portugal and Spain, which disagreed about who was responsible for the cleanup. Prevailing winds put Spain's coast at a greater risk for damage from the spill. It also irritated relations between Britain and Spain amid charges that port inspectors should have spotted obvious problems with the ship, which had stopped repeatedly in the British colony of Gibraltar. The two countries have long been at odds about ownership of the rocky promontory on Spain's southern coast.
Spanish beaches were mired in oil, and scores of animals were covered in sludge. Fishing was prohibited, putting hundreds out of work. The spill threatened some of the region's richest fishing grounds.
Fuel oil, a heavy, viscous blend gathered from the bottom of tanks at the end of the refining process, can be far more toxic and difficult to clean than crude oil, experts said.
The best hope for the environment is for the tanks to hold in the chilly waters, said Unni Einemo, senior editor at Bunkerworld, a London-based news service for the marine fuels industry.
"If it sinks into cold water, this stuff solidifies so much that it basically stays there," she said.
The Prestige, which flies under a Bahamian flag, is owned by Mare Shipping Inc., which is registered in Liberia and managed by a Greek company, Universe Maritime Ltd. It was traveling from a Baltic port to Singapore, carrying a load of Russian oil, when the storm hit, Universe Maritime said.
The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), a Houston-based registration company that makes sure shipping papers are in order, said the Prestige was up to date with its inspections.
The vessel, built in 1976, had its last annual survey in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in May and a full drydock inspection in China in May 2001, ABS said.
A Universe Maritime spokesman complained that the damaged vessel had been exposed to storms because it had been forced so far offshore. The Spanish government had ordered the ship far from land to limit contamination.
The tanker sustained a 30- to 50-foot crack in its hull below the waterline, which made it unable to proceed under its own power while salvagers sought a port to do repairs or transfer the oil to another ship.
The Oil Spill Response Center in Southampton, England, a nonprofit organization owned by the international oil industry, sent a team to help Spanish officials deal with the spill. Detergents are ineffective for cleaning fuel oil, said Archie Smith, the group's chief executive.
"It is the most difficult of the fuels to clean up," he said, adding that the toxicity of fuel oil is diminished somewhat after it comes into contact with seawater.
Spanish soldiers and volunteers were using buckets and shovels to remove oil from 40 miles of coastline between Cape Finisterre and the city of La Coruna, about 370 miles northwest of Madrid. Elsewhere, emergency workers tried to vacuum oil from beaches.
Seabirds floated helplessly in the blackened waves, and fish washed ashore. Volunteers tried to rescue about 150 of the injured animals.
"We've seen many dead fish and birds and many others in agony when we rescue them," said Ezequiel Navio from the World Wildlife Fund's Spanish branch.


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