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Seven menacing oil slicks threaten Spanish coastal areas

Arteixo (Spain), Nov. 20 (Reuters): Seven oil slicks menaced the coast of northwest Spain today, threatening to wash ashore where hundreds of kilometres of unspoilt beach and marshland have already been covered with thick, pungent fuel oil from the sunken tanker Prestige.

Spanish officials also put a price tag of 42 million euros ($42.05 million) on the cost of rehabilitating 90 tar-stained beaches that will take about six months to clean up in the wake of what could become one of the world’s worst oil spills.

Environment minister Jaume Matas came to this small seaside town to assess the damage from the 243-metre tanker that snapped in two and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic yesterday, six days after getting into trouble in a storm.

The 26-year-old, Bahamas-flagged Prestige took an estimated 60,000 tonnes of viscous fuel oil to the sea floor some 130 nautical miles off the coast, where ocean is about 3.6 km deep.

The total volume of 77,000 tonnes on board was twice the amount that gushed from the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in Alaska in 1989 to set a benchmark for oil spills.

“I think you can see it all around. This is a disaster,” Matas said tip-toeing across oil-soaked Barranan Beach where sailors in overalls shovelled black goo, looking like a road crew paving a new highway.

Hard hit were some of the creeks and marshes, where oil penetrated far enough inland to coat grasses and wooden fence posts with what appeared like a fresh coat of black paint.

And more of the oil, whose petrol-like stench sticks to clothes and fills the air along the coast, was on the way. Carlos del Almo, environment chief for the Galicia regional government, told reporters at the same beach the next wave of oil “will close in on the same area where we are now”. Of the seven known oil slicks, officials said one was two miles from shore, two were 40 miles away and four had formed where the Prestige went down. No sizes were given.

Officials previously said a 75-mile slick was following the ship before it sank. Apparently that broke up into smaller ones.

So far 240 tonnes had been scraped off the coast of Galicia, and 120 tonnes were sucked up at sea. In the wake of the disaster, a political storm has broken out over why such tankers, lacking modern double hulls, are still allowed to ply Europe’s waters.

French President Jacques Chirac, one of the most vocal critics, told ministers the situation in Spain was so serious that it was imperative the European Union, and France itself, speed up implementation of the extra safety measures agreed after the Maltese tanker Erika split in two off France in 1999.

Some experts hope the toxic mass in the tanks of the Prestige will harden due to frigid temperatures and high pressure in the ocean depths. But others called that optimistic, saying much of the oil potentially could resurface.

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