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Harris Whitbeck: The Galapagos oil spill nearly contained

Harris Whitbeck is the Mexico City bureau chief for the CNN News Group

CNN Moderator: How is the clean up of the oil spill progressing?

Harris Whitbeck: It's coming along quite well. Officials from the Galapagos National Park have been working closely with volunteers and with representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard trying to contain the spill's fuel as much as possible and working on land to cleanup any animals that might have been affected. Fortunately, only a few dozen animals, mostly sea lions and birds, were hit by the fuel. They have been cleaned up, checked out by veterinarians and released back into the wild.

Question from the chat room: Did I hear this morning that the oil spill has been contained and did not actually hit the islands shores?

CNN's Harris Whitbeck reports on the cleanup effort

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CNN's Harris Whitbeck reports on what threat the oil slick still poses to the islands Darwin called an evolution laboratory

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Hear oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau describe the threat to the islands' ecosystem

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In what year did the Galapagos become a national park?

A. 1911
B. 1935
C. 1959


Harris Whitbeck: Most of it was contained as the strong winds and motion current helped sweep most of the slick away from land. However, there were some sites on some of the islands that were hit by smaller slicks. But it could have been a lot worse.

Question from the chat room: Is there any scientific technology that is used to expedite the clean up process?

Harris Whitbeck: They are using large inflatable barriers that look like huge sausages. Those have been placed around the stricken ship to contain the spill. They are also using a special chemical that helps break down the slick, but, mostly, they are hoping that nature with its winds and ocean currents will defend itself.

Question from the chat room: Who's paying for clean up?

Harris Whitbeck: The cleanup is being paid for by the Ecuadorian government. That is one of the main concerns, because the economy here is in very bad shape and the monitoring efforts that are necessary in the longer term are quite expensive, because they need airplanes to fly over the islands to check the trajectory of this slick.

CNN Moderator: Do scientists and environmentalists fear any long-term damage or danger from the spill?

Harris Whitbeck: The biggest concern is the amount of pollutants in the water and how that might effect the food chain which starts with micro-organisms that are in the water. But, all in all, they still feel that this could have been a lot worse.

Question from the chat room: Can't the oil be burned off the surface? I'm sure this would release toxins into the atmosphere, but wouldn't this be better than the oil seeping onto the ocean floor, killing the plant life?

Harris Whitbeck: Well, this type of contaminant, which is diesel and not crude oil, floats on the water, and they feel it is easier to skim the oil off the surface rather than burning it, which would as you say, cause air pollution.

Question from the chat room: I read that they have detained the captain of the ship. Are they planning to charge him, and what might the charges be?

Harris Whitbeck: Well, the captain of the ship already admitted that he was at fault. He told a group of journalists this morning that he was too over confidant and took a wrong turn into the port. Government prosecutors are questioning him at this moment, and they say he could face several years in prison.

CNN Moderator: Who is the owner of the tanker and from which country does it originate?

Harris Whitbeck: The tanker is owned by an Ecuadorian shipping company that was contracted by a local cruise ship company to transport the fuel for its cruise ships.

Question from the chat room: Has any thought been given to routing shipping lanes far away from the Galapagos area?

Harris Whitbeck: The ships that sail through here are used for local transport. They bring supplies to the people who live here -- about sixty thousand inhabitants. But people are saying there should be stricter guidelines as to the type of ships that can sail in these waters.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Harris Whitbeck: I think this incident which could have been much worse has served as a call for alarm. People realize that these islands are a very important resource not only for Ecuador, but for the entire world. The sense is that people need to make sure that they protect them and ensure that they continue to be a living laboratory for evolution which is how Charles Darwin described them when he was here in the 19th Century.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Harris Whitbeck.

Harris Whitbeck: Thank you it? been nice.

Harris Whitbeck joined the chat room via telephone from San Cristobal, and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, January 25, 2001.

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