Stricken oil tanker threatens disaster off Spanish coast

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The Independent Online

Rescue workers were engaged in a race against time last night in heaving seas off Spain's rocky north-western Galician coast to prevent a sinking oil tanker from spewing 77,000 tons of fuel oil into the sea and causing an ecological disaster.

Rescue workers were engaged in a race against time last night in heaving seas off Spain's rocky north-western Galician coast to prevent a sinking oil tanker from spewing 77,000 tons of fuel oil into the sea and causing an ecological disaster.

Three helicopters lifted to safety 24 of the 27 crew from the Bahamas-registered tanker Prestige after the ship ran into difficulties 30 miles off the port of Finisterre en route from Latvia to Gibraltar. Rescued Filipino sailors said they felt a bump, as though the tanker had collided with something before it began taking in water.

The ship was listing 50 degrees, leaking oil and in danger of sinking. Reports spoke last night of an oil slick five miles long. Dramatic television pictures showed the vessel leaning heavily to one side in fierce seas with waves lashing over the deck.

The captain, the first officer and the pilot, all Greek, chose to stay on board. Four tugs tried to haul the stricken vessel out to sea so that the impact of a potential spill of high-sulphur fuel oil along the rocky coastline might be minimised. Fuel oil, used in power stations and to drive ships, is much more difficult to break down than crude, specialists said.

"Conditions are difficult and the rescue operation was very complicated," said the rescue services director, Salvador Garate. "Three are remaining on board while we are trying to drag the boat away from the coast, so we can minimise as far as possible any ecological damage. Our efforts are concentrated on protecting the coast."

Bad weather severely hampered the rescue operation, with strong winds and waves up to 6m (20ft) high.

Mario Rodriguez, a spokesman for Greenpeace, condemned as irresponsible tankers' practice of flying flags of convenience. "They operate with total lack of security and are subject to no system of control," he said.

Alberto Gil, a campaigner with Ecologists in Action, said the region was an area of great environmental interest and included protected coastline and rare species.

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