Winds push oil slicks away from Spanish coast

Friday, December 6, 2002

MADRID, Spain -- A change in wind direction raised hopes Thursday that slicks from a sunken oil tanker would veer away from northwestern Spain.

But authorities said patches of oil hit islands that are protected nature reserves and other slicks unaffected by the wind were spotted drifting along the northern coast right up to France.

Towns along France's Atlantic coast began readying to battle an approaching oil slick that was 135 miles away Thursday.

"The wind is pushing the slicks away from the coasts," Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told reporters in Madrid. "The wind at the moment is from the northeast and pushing them southward and out to the ocean."

The information appeared to be confirmed by fishermen who, in hundreds of boats, sailed out at dawn to the mouths of three estuaries in northwestern Spain which appeared to be in immediate danger over the past three days.

"The boats are coming back in and they're reporting they have seen no slicks coming into the estuaries," said a spokesman for the shellfish association in O Grove, in the Arosa estuary.

But the news was not so good for the Atlantic Island National Park, which comprises a group of islands just outside the estuaries that are home to a variety of protected animal and plant species.

"Wednesday was unfortunately a disaster for the archipelagos," Park director Basilio Rada told reporters. He said dozens of small patches of the toxic fuel oil from the Prestige tanker were surrounding many of the islands.

The park said some 10 tons of fuel had been scooped up from waters and beaches around the islands.

Thousands of fishermen in the northwestern region, using rudimentary instruments such as nets with plastic sheeting, trash bins and shovels, have worked frantically to prevent the oil penetrating the estuaries over the past three days.

The Prestige's hull cracked in a storm Nov. 13, and the ship bled oil off the northwestern Galician coast for six days until it broke apart and sank while being towed to deeper waters.

The government estimates it spewed 4.5 million gallons of the 20 million gallons it was carrying. Officials say 2 million gallons have been recovered at sea by the anti-pollution ships.

Initially, the spills swamped the northern stretches of Spain's Atlantic coast, tarring some 140 beaches and killing thousands of birds and an unknown number of fish and shellfish.

In recent days, winds and currents have dragged the slicks southward toward Portugal and pushed some patches east along Spain's northern coast toward France.

The two parts of the tanker sit on the ocean floor 2.2 miles down and about 155 miles west of Spain. Rajoy said authorities were still confident most of the oil would solidify because of the low temperatures.

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