Dec. 3, 2002
CORRUBEDO, Spain (Reuters) - Spain Tuesday began talks with the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund on paying for devastation from a massive oil spill, while racing to protect wildlife habitat from an encroaching black tide.
Two weeks after the tanker Prestige broke in two and plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic off northwestern Spain, the country was still mopping up thousands of tons of fuel oil that hit the coast and masses more still at sea.
As a new oil slick menaced rich shellfish grounds and a nature reserve on the south coast of Galicia, a French-owned mini-sub, the Nautile, was due to dive 2 miles to the ocean floor to see if the Prestige was still leaking fuel.
The oil spill would be the 14th largest in history if all 77,000 tons of the toxic goo were released into the sea. Already, 164 beaches have been coated with sludge and unknown numbers of fish, seabirds and dolphins have perished.
Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, leading the government's response to the disaster, met with the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPC) about indemnification as the untold clean-up cost continued to soar.
The IOPC agreed to expedite claims and open an office in the city of La Coruna, a government spokesman said.
The IPOC, financed by levies on certain types of oil transported at sea, will pay up to $179.5 million to claimants affected by the oil spill, Deputy Director Joe Nichols said from London.
That total includes the 25 million euros to be paid by the liability insurer, London Steamship Owners' Mutual Association.
More than 4,000 fishermen have been put out of work under a fishing ban covering more than 300 miles of coastline.
A fleet of eight clean-up vessels was sucking oil from the sea and four more were on the way. As of Monday, they had collected 7,000 tons of the 17,000 tons estimated to have escaped from the stricken tanker.
On land, volunteers and hired teams had scraped 2,600 tons of residue off some of the 164 affected beaches.
PERMANENT DAMAGE FEARED
Environmental pressure group the World Wildlife Fund raised the alarm over sensitive wetlands and coastal areas around the cape of Corrubedo, an area protected by an international wetlands treaty and the European Union.
A diverse array of sea mammals, reptiles, amphibians, migratory sea birds and plant life depend on the Corrubedo area, the WWF said.
The cape of Corrubedo is at the mouth of one of Galicia's river inlets, the Ria de Arousa, a tourist destination and site of Spain's largest reserve of mussels, clams and cockles.
Rocks at the base of the nearby lighthouse were already stained black, and a team of 40 workers continued to erect a barrier to protect a lagoon that is home to 20,000 birds.
Eight mechanical diggers moved sand dunes into place where the lagoon, which is fed by rivers, meets the open sea. Some 600 tree trunks have been stuck into the ground as fence posts and filled in with 7,000 sand bags.
"Although (authorities) are concentrating all their efforts on preventing the black tide from reaching this nature reserve, the complex is so large that we fear immediate and irreversible damage," WWF spokeswoman Susana Requena said.
The Prestige is believed to have taken most of its cargo to the ocean floor, but a French submarine specializing in deep sea probes prepared for a second tour of the wreckage to determine if it was still hemorrhaging oil.
The Nautile, best known for finding the wreckage of the Titanic, encountered the bow section of the tanker during its first dive Monday and reported no signs of oil leaking from tanks within the shattered hull.
"The first impression was good but we have to be prudent," Environment Minister Jaume Matas told Antena 3 television.
The Spanish government said the fuel oil was likely to congeal at near-freezing temperatures.
Photo credit and caption: Volunteer workers clean up fuel oil at Muxia beach in northwestern Spain province of Galicia December 1, 2002. The Prestige tanker began leaking oil after it was holed in a storm off the coast on November 13. Photo by Jose Manuel
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