Tanker's toxic time-bomb on sea bed

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THE oil tanker Prestige appeared to be holding on to its cargo of toxic fuel oil yesterday after breaking into two pieces and sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Fears of an imminent ecological disaster on the coasts of Spain and Portugal receded slightly as salvage crews and government officials said they had found no fresh oil slicks in the area.

It is thought that the fuel oil on board the Prestige will have solidified into a sticky gel in the chilly temperatures on the sea bed, and as a result of the high pressure at a depth of 11,500ft, where it could remain for decades without polluting the Iberian coastline.

However, environmentalists warned that the Prestige will remain a time-bomb and that its load of oil will inevitably be released to the surface at some time in the future once the hull of the ageing tanker rusts away.

"There have been no new oil spills since the boat went down," a Spanish government official said. "We’re monitoring the evolution of the slicks both where the tanker sank as well as around the coast of Galicia."

Although the Prestige shed an estimated 6,000 tonnes of oil before it broke up on Tuesday, polluting nearly 200 miles of Spanish coastline in the region of Galicia, the vast majority of the 70,000-tonne cargo has remained on board.

A 22-mile long oil slick which appeared after the ship broke up had been dispersed by heavy weather yesterday and had apparently been blown away from the coastline.

But fishermen fear a new slick could form and have made plans to form a flotilla which would be sent out to deal with any new slick.

Spain’s environment minister, Jaume Matas, said: "We have be prudent because we still don’t know whether we have passed the threshold of this crisis.

"We have to wait and see if this catastrophe gets bigger and in what way it affects us."

The Prestige was ruptured in a storm off the coast of Spain during a journey from Latvia to Singapore last Wednesday and split into two pieces after it was towed 150 miles out to sea by salvage crews.

Spain’s government has notified the ship’s insurers, London Steamship, that a case is being filed against the company, the ship, its owner and its captain.

Spain has demanded an initial deposit of 38 million from the company as a guarantee against a possible future fine or compensation claim. Spain has complained that the single-hulled Prestige, built in 1976, had not been inspected properly since 1999.

The tanker’s Greek captain, Apostolus Maguras, has been remanded in custody in Spain on charges of disobeying authorities and harming the environment. Bail was set at 3 million [1.9 million].

The Spanish authorities have suspended fishing along a 70-mile stretch of coastline, from Roncudo to Cape Tourinan, and compensation has been promised to local fishermen.

Efforts to clean up the Galician coastline affected by the initial spill of oil from the Prestige continued yesterday with ecologists estimating it will take six months for the area to recover.

If the fuel oil cargo does not spill from the tanker in the next few weeks, Spain and Portugal will have to decide whether to send robotic drills to the ocean floor and pump the fuel out before it has a chance to leak.

But a spokesman for Smit Salvage, the Dutch salvage firm which attempted to save the Prestige from breaking up, said: "Pumping oil from a depth of 3.5 km has never been done before and it is unlikely the decision will ever be taken to try.

"We have successfully pumped from 2.5km and it may be possible to go to 3.5km but it would be very difficult.

"Also, the oil will be very thick because of the cold temperatures on the ocean floor and we would have to pump hot water down to heat and thin it. We are not going to do that work."