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Spain puts cost of oil spill at £27m

Area declared emergency zone as second black tide threatens inlets - home to the most important mussel beds in Europe

The cost of the initial devastation wreaked by oil spilt from the Prestige was estimated at €42m (£27m) yesterday by Spain's environment minister, and he warned that the figure was likely to increase.

As Jaume Matas was speaking on a visit to one of the polluted fishing coves near La Coruña, further slicks were breaking up and heading towards the Spanish coast, threatening shorelines so far untouched by the black tide.

Mr Matas said costs included damage to the coastline between La Coruña and Finisterre where 90 beaches have been affected, 40 seriously. The sum did not cover potential damage faced by the inlets further to the south-west, where giant gobbets approached yesterday from the 250km (150-mile) slick spewed up by the Prestige as it broke up and sank on Tuesday morning.

These threatened waters contain the most important mussel beds in Europe, and the regional government admitted that if the slick entered the inlets, known as rias, it would produce the biggest ecological catastrophe the region had suffered.

Fishermen in the rias proposed creating a barrier across them, formed by hundreds of fishing boats, but the Galician regional fishery minister, Enrique Lopez Veiga, who visited the area to try to reassure them, said there was no cause for immediate alarm.

Oil from the Prestige has affected 295 kms of the coast so far, and throughout the north-west Galician region complaints have intensified that the government in Madrid has not reacted quickly or decisively enough.

Mr Matas insisted the government had taken "the best possible measures". He said: "We don't know yet how the oil the Prestige still carries will affect us, so our estimates of the cost are provisional. We reckon it will take us some six months to repair the damage to the coastline. We have to wait and be prudent because we still don't know whether we have passed the threshold of this crisis." Spain had urged the European Commission to approve urgently a directive of environmental responsibility, he added. "It is unacceptable that such events should go unpunished."

The region is to be declared an emergency zone tomorrow, enabling the immediate release of €27m in aid.

Environmental campaigners lambasted the government for failing to take precautionary measures, despite thousands of unchecked ships carrying hazardous cargo passing close to Spanish coasts every day.

Sebastian Losada, of Greenpeace, said: "These slicks are going to touch a very wide zone, probably the largest stretch of land affected by an oil spill, and we will be able to so absolutely nothing.

Environmental experts differ about what might happen next. Optimists reckoned the 60,000 tons of fuel oil estimated to have gone down with the prestige would be hardened by the cold and pressure of the deep sea and remain submerged. Pessimists feared pressure on the aged tanker's tanks would force the contents explosively to the surface, where wind and currents were forming the worst possible combination to drive the slicks ashore. Fishermen on the coast noted with alarm that the squalls and onshore breezes were building up to storms and gales in coming days.