Second slick threatens Galapagos islands as high seas rupture tanker

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The Independent US

A vast wave slammed into a grounded oil tanker near Ecuador yesterday, rupturing the ship's hulk and increasing the threat to rare wildlife on the Galapagos islands by releasing a further 20,000 gallons of diesel into the sea.

A vast wave slammed into a grounded oil tanker near Ecuador yesterday, rupturing the ship's hulk and increasing the threat to rare wildlife on the Galapagos islands by releasing a further 20,000 gallons of diesel into the sea.

Several crewmen were injured as they attempted to right the tanker, which ran into a reef nine days ago.

On Tuesday, Ecuadorian officials said that the threat from the oil spill had been reduced by high winds and currents that were shifting the oil slick away from islands.

But the collision released the 20,000 gallons of diesel that had not spilt or been removed from the tanker, half a mile from the harbour of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Before that, recovery teams had managed to salvage about 65,000 gallons of diesel and heavy bunker fuel from the 30-year-old vessel, the Jessica.

US Coast Guard advisers warned that the tanker could break up at any moment, and said that the oily film from the fuel covered about 780 square miles of the sea, an area the size of Greater Los Angeles.

Much of the fuel had been evaporating as it dispersed, but yesterday 35 boats clustered around inflatable barriers to help remove the newly spilt oil using hand-held containers.

Marine biologists warned that heavy bunker fuel was likely to sink to the sea-bed and poison algae and plankton on which many creatures feed. They also said chemical solvents being used in the clean-up operation were almost as hazardous as the fuel itself.

Marine iguana, sharks, turtles, as well as pelican and other birds that eat fish, are among the species threatened by the toxins.

Dead mullet, sea urchin and kelp were washing ashore on the Galapagos island of San Cristobal yesterday, where residents and tourists were being advised not to eat fish.

The black tide has also reached Santa Fe island, home to rare land iguana, and some beaches on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, where there are big colonies of seals. Officials from the national park said that the seals could be blinded by the diesel. Stomach ulcers would also result from seals licking the oil-smeared fur of their pups, they said. Training sessions for volunteers to clean pelican, gulls and seals were under way at rescue stations set up by the park.

Environmental experts estimated that it would take at least two weeks to assess the harm caused by the oil spill.

Ecuador's Environment Minister, Rodolfo Rendon, had declared a state of emergency on Tuesday over the archipelago where the scientist Charles Darwin first observed natural selection. The minister said on national television: "We have a very, very grave environmental problem." But he added: "It's a problem, not a tragedy."

His assessment may now need to be revised. Mr Rendon said Ecuador had agreed to spend $2m (£1.37m) to deal with the spillage, and predicted that the cost would quadruple before the clean-up was complete. He also appealed for international aid. But critics of President Gustavo Noboa's government said that earlier salvage work would have prevented the bunker fuel and diesel from leaking into the pristine seas.

One diplomat said: "The Ecuadorean government needs to be asking itself hard-nosed questions about its handling of the situation; the EU and the US will be putting that message strongly." Carl Safina, a marine conservation officer for the National Audubon Society, said: "One of the reasons that the Galapagos are so important is that they serve as a reference point for what undemolished nature looks like, and we need to preserve that."

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