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Crippled fuel oil tanker sinks

The last moments of the Prestige
The last moments of the Prestige

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A crippled tanker carrying more than 19.6 million gallons of heavy fuel oil sank 130 miles off Spain's northwest coast. CNN's Al Goodman reports (November 20)
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OFF CAPE FINISTERRE, Spain (CNN) -- A crippled tanker carrying more than 19.6 million gallons of heavy fuel oil has sunk 130 miles off Spain's northwest coast, leaving Spanish authorities scrambling to protect the coastline in a region where fishing is the primary industry.

The Bahamian-flagged tanker Prestige broke in half on Tuesday, its stern sinking quickly with little seepage of fuel from its tanks, salvage officials said. Its bow stayed afloat for several hours but sank later in the day, Spanish authorities said.

Officials said they did not know whether the vessel's bow was leaking fuel or if so, how much. Local fishermen said forecasts indicated winds up to 40 knots (46 mph) and waves up to 20 feet -- which would move any slick that develops into shore quickly.

The World Wildlife Fund warned that if all of the oil had leaked, it would have been one of the largest oil spills ever -- more than twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

The Prestige ran into trouble six days ago in heavy seas and gale-force winds off Cape Finisterre on the Galicia coast. Its original cargo was 22.6 million gallons, but it spilled an estimated 1.5 million gallons when it sprang a leak and another 1.5 million gallons as it broke up, Reuters reported.

Spanish officials -- who have been trying to clean up oil that has already spilled -- scrambled to protect the fisheries along the coastline. The cleanup effort might take as long as four years, they speculated.

The stern section, which contained about 7 million gallons tons of oil, sank with its tanks intact, said John Nixon, an official with Smit Salvage, the Dutch firm that had been attempting to move the ship away from the Spanish coast.

Nixon described the spillage from the stern section as "minimal" and said it was probably best that the bow section sank as well.

Nixon said the ocean at that point is 3,600 meters (about 11,800 feet) deep and the fuel in the tanks should congeal at the temperatures at that depth, minimizing further damage.

'Coast of death'

A bird caught in the viscous slime
A bird caught in the viscous slime

Spain's northwest coast has suffered several tanker accidents in recent years, the worst in December 1992 when the Greek tanker Aegean Sea lost 21.5 million gallons of crude oil when it ran aground near La Coruna. The area is sometimes called "the coast of death" because of the many shipwrecks there.

The 243-meter (797-foot) tanker began leaking in heavy seas last Wednesday en route to Gibraltar from the Latvian port of Riga. One crew member said he thought he felt a bump just before the ship began listing.

A fuel slick resembling black slime 70 miles long and 5 miles wide was moving onto the Spanish coast. Spanish government teams were stringing orange ribbon-like barriers to protect the openings of inlets near the port of La Coruna.

The tanker had already leaked viscous oil into the rich fishing grounds off the coast, and regional authorities temporarily banned fishing in an area famous for its shellfish, octopus and crabs.

Authorities estimated the leaking fuel oil had done an estimated $90 million (euros) in damage to the Spanish fishing industry, even before the ship broke up.

Captain in custody

The ship was dragged out to sea after both Spain and Portugal, to protect their fishing and tourism industries from further damage, barred salvagers from towing the Prestige into any of their ports.

On Monday two Spanish tugboats tried to pull the tanker as far away from the coast as possible.

The tanker's Greek captain was in custody after five hours of questioning Sunday by a judge in La Coruna. Maritime authorities said he failed to cooperate with rescue crews after issuing a distress call. (Full story)

For hours, as the Prestige drifted perilously close to shore, he refused to let tugboats secure cables to the ship, officials said. The tanker is owned by the Greek company Mare Shipping Inc.

Spain said it would push to bring forward the date to ban from European waters single-hulled tankers like the Prestige and insist on double-hulled vessels.

Meanwhile, EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio sent a letter to the 15 EU capitals Tuesday urging that they move faster to enforce new inspection rules that could prevent such catastrophes.

-- CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman contributed to this report.

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