Damaged Oil Tanker Breaks Apart, Sinks

M By David Holley, Cristina Mateo-Yanguas and Kenneth R. Weiss

mADRID, Spain – A damaged oil tanker broke in two off the craggy northwest coast of Spain and sank Tuesday, threatening an environmental disaster from a spill twice as large as from the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground in 1989.

The single-hull Prestige was carrying intermediate-grade fuel oil, the viscous goo literally left at the bottom of the barrel after refineries take gasoline and lighter components off the top, generally used to power large engines. Fuel oil is less toxic than crude oil because the volatile compounds have been removed and thus less likely to poison fish and wildlife. Yet it’s so thick, it can easily smother birds and marine mammals and coats everything it touches with nearly tar-like goop.

It ruptured last Wednesday during a storm, sustaining a 40-foot crack in the hull below the waterline. In a desperate attempt to limit the environmental damage, the Spanish government ordered it towed out to sea.

But the effort failed. The shipped spilled about 5,000 tons of oil as it broke up, adding to the 5,000 tons leaked earlier. Spanish beaches were already mired in oil, with birds and shellfish facing destruction from the sludge. At least 1,000 Spanish fishermen have been thrown out of work in the picturesque Galician coast that boasts one of Europe’s richest fisheries. The spill has already led to the northern part of the area being dubbed “the Coast of Death.”

The Prestige was carrying 77,000 tons of fuel oil loaded in Latvia and bound for Singapore. If it loses its entire cargo, it would rank 14th among tanker spills. The biggest spill was that of the Atlantic Empress off Tobago in 1979, with 287,000 tons. The Exxon Valdez leaked 34,000 tons of crude oil.

Several European countries and the European Union quickly attacked each other over the incident.

“I am horrified by the inability of those in charge, politically, nationally and particularly at the European level, to take action to stem the laxity which permits these ships fit only for the dustbin to carry on,” French President Jacques Chirac told reporters on a visit near Paris. “Now we must urgently take Draconian measures, both severe and serious, even if they harm the interests of certain companies whose interests are not worth defending.”

The 26-year-old Japanese-built Prestige was owned by a Liberia-registered firm, registered in the Bahamas, managed in Greece, chartered by the Swiss-based Russian oil trader Crown Resources and classed as seaworthy by the American Bureau of Shipping, authorities said. This adds to the difficulty of pinpointing where greatest responsibility for the disaster might lie.

“There is a total lack of control of maritime traffic,” complained Jose Luis Garcia Varas, a World Wildlife Fund marine expert in Spain. “Authorities don’t care much about what happens in the sea. Take the Spanish government – dragging the ship away from the Galician coast doesn’t solve the problem. The spill is still in the sea. And, in the end, the sea returns what you throw in it.”

The government, however, defended its actions.

“The Spanish administration’s decision to keep the ship far away from the coast is based on trying to keep away the source of contamination from the Spanish coast,” Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Tuesday while visiting the area. “This was especially important if new cracks appeared in the tanks or even if the ship broke. Having the source of pollution further away from the coast would give us much more time to fight it in the sea, more time to monitor it and more time to have fighting measures available.”

The ship sank in two-mile-deep ocean about a dozen miles from the Galician Bank, a relatively shallow seamount known for its rich and abundant diversity of coral, sponges, fish and other sea life.

European conservationists have been lobbying for the Galician Bank to be added to the world’s list of designated “particularly sensitive sea areas.” That designation by the UN’s International Maritime Organization can restrict shipping traffic to protect fisheries and marine life habitat. The Florida Keys and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are among a handful of oceanic areas with such a designation.

“It is certainly a disaster,” said Garcia said. The area is home to 11 species of sharks, 86 other species of fish including some otherwise unknown, and one of the most important cold-water coral formations off the European coast, the World Wildlife Fund said in a news release Tuesday.

“It was a pristine area, one of the few left in Europe,” Garcia said.

It will probably be at least six months before local fishermen can again catch the octopus, sole, conger and sea bream that they ship to Spanish cities, while local shellfish harvesters will lose two or three years of production, he added.

Teams of conservationists from Spain and other countries were trying to save 18 types of oil-covered seabirds including gannets, puffins, razorbills and the European shag. Besides cleaning their feathers, volunteers swabbed nostrils and suctioned their stomach contents through a tube.

“Some of the seabird species don’t exist anywhere else in the world,” said Scott Burns, the U.S.-based director of the World Wildlife Fund’s marine conservation program. “If you compare this to the Exxon Valdez spill, this has the potential to be twice as big. The Exxon spill killed a quarter of a million birds. We are hoping that doesn’t happen here.”

Spanish soldiers and volunteers Tuesday used buckets and shovels to remove oil along 40 miles of coastline. Detergents sometimes used to clean after oil spills are ineffective against fuel oil whose density makes it particularly difficult to clean up, said David Kennedy, director of the U.S. Office of Response and Restoration within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Traditional means such as skimming it from the surface often don’t work, he said. The viscous oil, which needs to be warmed before it can be pumped, clogs up skimming equipment or bobs just below the surface and out of reach of skimmers or chemical dispersants.

After its hull cracked, no European port had been willing to take in the stricken vessel to allow repairs or transfer of the oil to another ship. The crew was airlifted to safety last week. The tanker’s Greek captain, Apostolus Maguras, was jailed on charges of disobeying authorities and harming the environment.

The ship sank 133 miles off Spain’s Atlantic coast. Experts gave varying accounts. Some said the containers holding oil may have already imploded from the pressure as the ship sank, might crack upon hitting the ocean floor or could become a kind of time bomb, eventually rusting through and releasing the oil. Some experts predicted the ocean bottom chill would solidify the oil and keep it in place, limiting the environmental damage.