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Fuel oil spill fouls Spanish coastline

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Cleanup crews have begun to remove tons of thick black sludge from beaches in northwestern Spain scarred by an oil spill that threatens birds, marine life and the livelihood of thousands of fishermen.

Part of a slick formed when the stricken tanker Prestige leaked 800,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Atlantic last week has washed up along 150 miles of pristine coastline in the Galicia region, which is famous for seafood.

Calmer weather has allowed tugs to tow the Prestige, which began to leak fuel again over the weekend, to an area 100 miles southwest of the coast, but the ship will remain a serious threat to the environment until its 20-million gallons of fuel oil can be loaded onto another tanker.

If the ship loses its entire cargo, the spill would be nearly twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska.

Spain has insisted that the Prestige, whose hull ruptured during a storm on Wednesday and is at risk of breaking in two, be towed away from the shore as quickly as possible and has refused it access to any port. The ship's owners are said to be seeking a refuge for it in Portugal, but diplomats quoted by the Spanish press said that Portugal would not grant this.

Onshore, 500 people, including 150 navy personnel, managed to shift more than 100 tons of fuel, shoveling tar-covered sand into bulldozers and using a suction hose to lift oil from rocky inlets.

Disconsolate locals looked on at the grim scene, repeated at random along the coast, with some beaches and cliffs escaping unscarred. Fishing has been banned along the Coast of Death, so-called for its ample history of shipwrecks.

The ban is a devastating blow to the 5,000 families that live by harvesting goose barnacles, spider crabs, mussels, scallops and other seafood.

"This is the main source of income in this area, especially in the weeks running up to Christmas," said Jose Luis Garcia of the Worldwide Fund for Nature-Adena. "They sell 40 percent of their catch at Christmas, and they can expect to lose all that."

The organization estimates losses at more than $100-million this year, and warns that it will take two to three years for shellfish grounds to recover. Rare seabirds like guillemots, shags and kittiwakes will also be hurt by the spill.

Fishermen beyond the affected zone were out in force on Monday, fearful that a ban will hit them next, since slicks may yet reach other parts of the coastline, propelled by 60 mph winds forecast for Wednesday.

But, Garcia added, "what really worries us is the ship." He criticized the government for "wanting to push the environmental problem as far away from Spain as possible, rather than trying to resolve the problem."

The tanker's Greek captain, Apostolus Maguras, was being held on $3-million bail after he was jailed on charges of disobeying authorities and harming the environment.

The ship, owned by the Greek company Mare Shipping Inc., was bound for Singapore when the storm hit. Spanish authorities said the Prestige hadn't been inspected since 1999, despite regular stops in the British colony of Gibraltar _ a charge that Britain denied.