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Oil Tanker Breaks in Half Off Spain

November 19, 2002

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MADRID, Spain (AP) _ A damaged tanker carrying more than 20 million gallons of oil broke in two off the northwest coast of Spain and began to sink Tuesday, threatening an environmental disaster.

If the Bahamas-flagged Prestige loses its entire cargo as it goes down in stormy weather about 150 miles off the coast, the spill would be nearly twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska.

``It has now split in two and one part is sinking,″ said Claudia Van Andel, a spokeswoman for SMIT salvage company.

The vessel ruptured Wednesday during a storm and salvagers had raced to prevent it from sinking or spilling its cargo.

Van Andel said the vessel had been disconnected from the salvage tugs. SMIT estimated that the tanker had lost between 1.3 million gallons and 2.6 million gallons of fuel so far.

Oil has already blackened beaches in northwestern Spain, and cleanup workers said scores of animals were covered in sludge and in need of care. Fishing has been prohibited leaving hundreds out of work. The oil threatened some of the richest fishing grounds in the region.

Most of the crew were airlifted off the ship last week.

Van Andel said there was a chance some of the oil compartments could remain intact and plunge the 11,800 feet to the sea floor, moderating the spill damage.

``A lot depends on the temperature of the sea. If it drops low enough, the oil could become a solid mass and is not so dangerous,″ said Van Andel.

She added that there was little likelihood the ship or its cargo could be salvaged.

``There was another gale warning last night and this is obviously one storm too many,″ said a spokesman for Universe Maritime Ltd, which manages the ship, who asked to not be named.

The vessel had sustained a 30- to 50-foot crack in the 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 vessel.

Dozens of beaches and coves along the coast were coated in thick oil while up to 150 animals, mostly seabirds, were taken for treatment.

``We’ve seen many dead fish and birds and many others in agony when we rescue them,″ Ezequiel Navio, from the World Wildlife Fund’s Spanish branch ADENA.

Soldiers and volunteers were still cleaning up the beaches between Cape Finisterre north to the city of A Coruna.

The Interior Ministry said the ship was in an area for which Portugal had responsibility for maritime rescue operations.

Both Portugal and Spain had barred the salvagers from towing the ship to any of their ports to protect their fishing and tourism industries.

The tanker’s Greek captain, Apostolus Maguras, was jailed on charges of disobeying authorities and harming the environment.

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

The management company said this was the first time such problems had occurred with the vessel.

``There has been no instance that which led to a pollution,″ said the spokesman

The last port state control inspection was in 1999 and its last annual inspection was in May 2002, the spokesman added. Every five years it is dry docked for a full inside and outside inspection and the last one was in May 2001, he added.

Spain’s northwest coast has suffered several tanker accidents in recent years. The worst was in 1992, when the Greek tanker Aegean Sea lost 21.5 million gallons of crude oil when it ran aground near A Coruna.

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