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Prestige spill may hurt Spain for 10 years

Cost estimated at U.S. $5.7 billion

Volunteers clean oil from rocks at Cape Tourinan, Spain.
Volunteers clean oil from rocks at Cape Tourinan, Spain.

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MADRID, Spain (Reuters) -- A huge oil spill off Spain's northwestern coast last year may damage fishing, tourism and natural habitats for the next decade at a cost of five billion euros, the WWF environmental group said on Thursday.

In a hard-hitting report the WWF said the consequences of the breakup of the tanker Prestige, which created one of the world's worst oil spills, are far from over.

It criticizes aspects of the Spanish government's response to the disaster and calls for tougher international maritime safety measures.

"The disaster continues today," the report said. "Between 5,000 and 10,000 tons of oil are still drifting in the Atlantic and periodically ending up at various points along the coast. In addition, there are still 13,000 tons of fuel oil in the tanks of the (sunken) Prestige."

The 26-year-old Prestige was holed off Spain's craggy Galician coast on November 13 last year, spilling part of its load of 77,000 tons of fuel oil which coated the region's picturesque beaches and rich shellfish beds.

The Spanish government controversially ordered the Prestige onto the high seas, where it limped along under tow for six days before breaking up and sinking, releasing further waves of oil.

Officials say the Prestige released 63,000 tons of oil, almost twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill which ravaged Alaska's coast in 1989.

Thousands of Galician fishermen were temporarily thrown out of work after the disaster and WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, said that based on previous spills their catches could be reduced for years.

300,000 bird deaths

It estimated 300,000 sea birds died and said the Prestige sank on the Galicia Bank, an undersea mountain of great ecological value.

The study warned of a risk of contamination by toxic pollutants, saying contaminants on the sea bed can enter the food chain through organisms that ingest sediments and eventually end up in sea bass, octopus, crabs and shrimps.

Thousands of people helped clean up tar-like oil that disfigured 750 Spanish beaches last year, though even now oil from the Prestige washes up as far north as Normandy.

WWF said many errors were made during the cleanup that could cause additional harm to the environment.

It said Galician fisheries were reopened far too early after the spill, saying the two-to-eight-month ban on fishing and shell-fishing was far shorter than after oil spills elsewhere.

Juan Maneiro, director of the Galician regional government's marine control center, denied reopening of fishing grounds was premature, saying they were only allowed to reopen if tests showed any contamination was well below prescribed limits.

WWF also urged the International Maritime Organization to approve worldwide measures to improve maritime security, such as speeding up the phase out of single-hulled tankers similar to the Prestige.

Robots have been used to seal cracks in the Prestige, some four km down on the sea bed, and Environment Minister Elvira Rodriguez said on Thursday no oil was now leaking from it.

An oil firm is making plans to try to pump out the remaining oil and Rodriguez said she expected this to happen next year.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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