Strong North Atlantic winds are pushing another huge oil slick along the Spanish coast as environmentalists and emergency crews frantically attempted to corral the spill Wednesday and prevent further catastrophe to a multimillion-dollar fishing industry and one of Europe's most delicate ecosystems.
Oozing through the ocean and gooey as tar, the 6,000-ton oil spill was creeping up the coast as a fleet of boats strung out floating barriers. Officials predicted that at least some of the slick _ the third one from the crippled Prestige oil tanker, which was carrying 77,000 tons of fuel _ would pollute more beaches and inlets in Spain and Portugal sometime Friday.
There is a possibility changing ocean currents and shifting 60 mph gusts could sweep the oil farther out to sea. Winds and 25-foot waves weakened the 22-mile black sheen by splitting it into four parts. But emergency crews were bracing for the worst. If the spill reaches land, it will foul a longer stretch of craggy coves and damage a wider swath of the fishing industry than the previous slicks.
More than 1,000 fishermen have been forced off the seas, and untold numbers of birds and other wildlife are believed to have perished.
Environmentalists are hoping the bulk of the Prestige cargo _ about 65,000 tons of oil _ will solidify in the frigid water and remain entombed in the vessel, which snapped in two on Tuesday and sank about 133 miles off the northwestern Spanish coast. So far, according to officials, no sign of a massive leak has bubbled up from the depths.
"We hope that the sunken part does not spill its fuel. But it's still a time bomb at the bottom of the sea," said Maria Jose Caballero, head of Greenpeace's coastal project. "There's nothing that makes us believe it won't finally burst and leak all its oil."
Spain's Environment Minister Jaume Matas said: "We still don't know whether we have passed the threshold of this crisis."
As volunteers and Spanish soldiers scraped gobs of oil from rocks and boats and birds along nearly 200 miles of the Galicia coast, the game of second-guessing and blame reverberated across Europe. French President Jacques Chirac called the Prestige a "garbage ship" and said that too many poorly regulated tankers are plying the seas and skirting European environmental codes.
Environmentalists criticized the Spanish government for not towing the Prestige to a port and offloading the oil shortly after it began listing and leaking in stormy seas a week ago. The government instead attempted to limit damage by towing the vessel farther out to sea, where it cracked and sank in nearly 12,000 feet of water. The Spanish media reported that the government considered bombing the Prestige with F-18 fighter jets in hopes the explosions would burn off the fuel. The wayward vessel was also barred from entering ports in France, Britain and Portugal.
The Prestige is registered in Liberia and managed by Universe Maritime Ltd., a Greek company. Chartered by a Swiss-based Russian oil trader, the Prestige left the Baltic Sea and was bound for Singapore when its single hull cracked last week in rough seas. The Spanish government has begun legal proceedings against the ship's backers and has jailed its captain, Apostolus Maguras. He is charged with harming the environment and disobeying authorities.
The Spanish government, frustrated by the layers of different companies connected to the Prestige, has demanded that one of the ship's insurers, London Steamship, deposit $60-million as a guarantee against possible fines and compensation claims. Preliminary cleanup costs and lost business due to closed fishing waters is estimated at $42 million, said Matas.
"We need more transparency" for who's to blame for this disaster, said Simon Cripps, director of the World Wildlife Federation marine program.
Across Spain, residents lamented that the oil slick will wipe out Galicia's supply of goose barnacle, a tasty crustacean enjoyed as a Christmas delicacy. Fishermen in the area hang from ropes off craggy cliffs to harvest the gnarled, sticklike creatures, which cling to the rocks amid the pounding surf.
Goose barnacles are available from elsewhere, but the Galician barnacles are prized above all others. Prices currently running between $30 and $100 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) are expected to skyrocket to $200 per kilo.
Half of world's tanker
fleet are single hulls
BRUSSELS _ They're derided as "environmental time bombs" and "floating garbage dumps." Yet more than half the world's 10,000 oil tankers are the old-style, single-hulled variety despite outcries after every disastrous spill, from the 1989 Exxon Valdez in pristine Alaska to this week's sinking of the Prestige off the verdant coast of Spain.
A U.N. treaty banning single-hulled tankers entered into force this year _ but the phase-in period stretches to 2015.
Until then, European Union officials say their efforts to impose stricter inspections are being subverted by shipowners who steer clear of EU harbors or avoid dropping anchor when they refuel or pick up supplies. Yet oil they spill can wash ashore anyway _ as the cleanup crews scooping sludge from Spanish beaches Wednesday can attest.