Britain faces questions as oil slick spreads off Galicia

The European Union and Spain have demanded answers from Britain about an oil tanker that spilt toxic fuel oil off Spain's north-western coast, threatening ecological catastrophe in a region dependent on fishing.

Loyola de Palacio, the EU transport commissioner, has written to the Government asking whether proper inspections of the Prestige were made when it docked in Gibraltar to refuel its engines before its latest voyage to Latvia.

The 44,000-ton single-hull vessel then picked up a cargo of 77,000 tons of sulphur-rich fuel oil and was returning to Gibraltar when it sprang a leak on Wednesday in heavy seas off Finisterre.

"We want to know if the ship was checked, and if not, why not," Ms de Palacio's spokesman, Gilles Gantelet, said yesterday. "Safety must be a priority for everybody."

Gibraltar was the "only EU port which it entered and where it could have been checked", he added.

But the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency said the Prestige had not actually docked at Gibraltar. It was "believed to have taken on bunker fuel while anchored off Gibraltar", a spokesman said. The vessel was registered in the Bahamas and regulations did not require a routine inspection of a foreign-flagged vessel outside a port. In addition, a 1995 directive obliges port authorities to check only 25 per cent of ships coming into dock.

Some 3,000 tons of oil spilt into the sea yesterday, producing a slick 20 miles long, six miles from Galicia's Costa de la Muerte. Officials said one of the ship's tanks appeared to have cracked. Rescue workers finally got a line on board in gale force winds after 16 failed attempts. By evening, the leak appeared to be fixed, the engines were restarted and the tanker headed out to sea.

Fishermen in La Coruna warned of the potential catastrophe. "I can't say how long it would take for the Costa de la Muerte to recover," Javier Saro, president of the region's fishing association, said. "If that tanker goes down, there'll be no fish or shellfish for years."

Neither Latvia nor Gibraltar is signatory to the Paris Memorandum of Understanding, which governs international maritime safety and can ban ships failing to meet standards. "Gibraltar is one of the ports for which Britain is responsible," the organisation's head, Richard Schiferli, said. "A ship that's undergone surveys ... should be able to withstand a storm."

Environmental campaigners say single-hulled ships and flags of convenience should not be used to carry oil. "Vessels not properly inspected and verified should not be allowed to sail with hazardous cargo," said David Santillo, a Greenpeace scientist at Exeter University.

"We want more stringent and transparent controls, so we can establish who is liable for environmental accidents. At present it's very unclear."

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