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Europe

Ecological Disaster Imminent as Tanker Sinks

Around 77,000 tons of oil could escape from the stricken vessel "Prestige" after it sank off the northwestern Spanish coast. The ensuing disaster could be even worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe off Alaska.

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The bow section of the stricken oil tanker just before it sank on Tuesday

Galician authorities are bracing themselves for the worst oil slick disaster in history after the stricken tanker "Prestige" floundering off the Spanish northwestern coast broke up and sank.

The tanker, which has already spewed some 5,000 tons into the sea, split into two early on Tuesday. The vessel, with 77,000 tons of fuel oil on board and flying a Bahamas flag of convenience, ran into trouble off the Galician coast last Wednesday. Authorities are now monitoring two large slicks moving toward the Spanish coast.

Difficult conditions

Salvage experts said that as yet no further compartments containing oil had split. They were vague about the possibility of pumping the oil from the ship citing bad weather and the depth of around 3,600 meters where the ship sank. They added that the ship's tanks might crack upon hitting the sea floor or implode as a result of the water pressure. Should the oil escape, environmentalists fear a catastrophe on an even bigger scale than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

According to reports, the 26-year-old Japanese-built tanker has not been inspected since 1999, when the ports of Rotterdam and New York both complained of security lapses.

Ecological and economic disaster

Tanker Prestige sinkt

The Bahamas-registered 'Prestige' oil tanker is seen broken in two some 152 miles (244 kilometers) off Spain's coast in the Atlantic ocean.

The Galician coastline is one of Spain's most beautiful regions, famous for corals, marine life and seabirds. Already several hundred seabirds have been killed by the oil. The region is also heavily dependent on tourism and fishing with the industry employing around 120,000 people.

Meanwhile, a row has erupted between Portugal and Spain over responsibility for the vessel and the pollution it is causing.

Chief Galacian regional government officer Arsenio Fernandez de Mesa said the tanker had crossed into Portugal's salvage zone before it began breaking up. However, Portuguese authorities say the vessel was outside of Portugal's exclusive economic zone when it split up.

Security shortcomings

The latest disaster has once again highlighted the shortcomings of an EU-wide initiative that calls for all oil tankers to be fitted with double hulls. Although the basic agreement is in place, there are differences of opinion over rules that should apply for monitoring unseaworthy vessels.

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