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Oil Spill Threatens Galapagos Islands; Coast Guard Officer Discusses Clean-Up

Aired January 22, 2001 - 2:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: One of the world's most fragile and fascinating ecosystems is under assault today by a man-made disaster. A 150,000-gallon fuel spill threatens the Galapagos Islands. The chain of islands is bathed by the Pacific some 600 miles off South America. The pristine habitat is the only place on the planet you will find certain species of birds, lizards and the famed Galapagos turtles.

A U.S. Coast Guard team is working with local crews to contain the spill and protect the treasures of the islands.

CNN's Ralitsa Vassileva begins our coverage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pollution experts are racing against time. They need to pump out the remaining fuel in Jessica's leaking tanks before the ship splits apart. The Ecuadorian-registered oil tanker ran aground last week off San Cristobal, the easternmost island in the Galapagos chain. It began leaking its cargo of diesel and other fuels on Friday into a fragile marine environment.

Making matters worse, Jessica is tilted sharply, making it more difficult to pump out more than 400,000 liters still onboard.

A U.S. Coast Guard plane arrived Sunday afternoon carrying high- capacity pumps and other equipment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The tanks on the vessel are very damaged. The vessel is -- looks to be a total loss, and it's very severely damaged. Most -- half -- at least half of the cargo tanks are already leaking. Most of them have already leaked most of their oil.

VASSILEVA: Ecuador's environment minister is appealing for more international help with the cleanup. He says an area of about 2,000 square kilometers has been contaminated.

RODOLFO RENDON, ECUADORIAN ENVIRONMENTAL MINISTER: We will need, in the next day, more dispersants and skimmers to -- to fight the contamination -- and the assistance -- the stock here in Ecuador is almost gone. VASSILEVA: Floating nets and barriers have been set up to control the more than 650,000 liters of fuel that have spilled into the Pacific. But some slicks have reached the beaches on San Cristobal, threatening the unique wildlife on Galapagos, which shaped Darwin's theory on evolution.

Rescuers have been busy cleaning the sticky coating of oil from birds and sea lions. Ecuador's environmental minister says at least one animal has died. More than 10 sea lions have been harmed so far. They're expected to live.

But if not contained, Jessica's spill could prove deadly to many other animals. The current is now pushing the spill south, where it threatens large colonies of sea lions and other marine animals on another island. The world wildlife fund warns the spill could have a lasting effect on hundreds of species that have evolved over thousands of years with little human intervention.

Ralitsa Vassileva, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: And for more about what a treasure this area of the world is, Natalie Pawelski, our environmental correspondent joins us now.

Such a shame to imagine what these animals -- and what happens to what's under the sea there -- what the future holds now.

NATALIE PAWELSKI, CNN ENVIRONMENTAL CORRESPONDENT: Exactly, Natalie. I mean, for biologists, the Galapagos is sort of what the Louvre is for artists or what Cooperstown is for baseball players. It's a one-of-a-kind place, with a fascinating history that's still evolving.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAWELSKI (voice-over): From the marine iguana, which swims, to the highly endangered giant tortoise, which can live for 150 years, there are dozens of species living on the Galapagos Islands that exist nowhere else on Earth.

There animals and plants developed in isolation on these remote islands, and over the eons, researchers say, they've changed to adapt to their unique environment. For example, there are dozens of subspecies of finches, each with a different kind of beak that's ideal for different feeding habits.

Back in the 1800s, the islands' animals inspired a visiting Charles Darwin to draw up his theory of evolution by natural selection, and ever since the Galapagos have been world famous among biologists, who continue to study these islands, and wildlife watchers, who come to see red-breasted frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, and Galapagos sea lions.

(END VIDEOTAPE) PAWELSKI: If you can believe, there are even penguins in the Galapagos. Even though the islands are close to the equator, the birds can live there because a couple of strong cold ocean currents filled with nutrients surround the Galapagos and make life there possible, Natalie, even for penguins.

ALLEN: Again, so sad to see what they're going through now -- the penguins, probably, too. Other than this disaster, are the Galapagos well protected?

PAWELSKI: Well, historically, they have been. But lately there's an increasing amount of tourism to the area, tens of thousands of visitors a year. Some people believe that this is doing damage to that ecosystem.

The other big problem they sometimes have there are things like la Nina and el Nino. Since the islands are, obviously, surrounded by water, changes in ocean currents and temperatures can affect the animals that live there.

ALLEN: Natalie, thank you.

We'll find out what the latest situation is now -- Here's Lou.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Natalie, we have Tod Lyons, who's the chief petty officer for the U.S. Coast Guard on the line with us.

Officer Lyons, environmentalists and others are watching what's happening down there in the Galapagos with some measure of horror. Do you have any good news for them?

TOD LYONS, U.S. COAST GUARD: Well, I can tell you that we've sent our strike team of 10 personnel and one national oceanic and atmospheric administration person down there to assist with the cleanup as best as we can. Our main task is to offload what oil remains on the Jessica onto a barge so we can take away any threat to the environment. We don't know exactly how much has gotten into the water, but we do know that we believe there's still some onboard the vessel, and we want to move that as quickly as we can.

WATERS: There's is some evidence that this is the kind of oil that would eventually sink to the bottom and choke off the algae, which is part of the food chain for the species on the Galapagos. Is that right or wrong?

LYONS: Well, different types of oils have different types of consistencies. And there are two types of oil that I know of that were on this vessel, one of which was diesel and one of which was like a bunker fuel, which is a heavier fuel. Our main concern right now is to get that fuel moved -- what remains on the vessel into a barge that's standing by. And as far as the information about the oil sinking, I would refer you to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration because they work with that regularly.

WATERS: All right, can you report any significant progress? LYONS: We arrived on scene yesterday afternoon. We've got out there were the vessel is. We looked over the situation. There's a barge on scene. Now it's just a matter of getting our pumps hooked up, getting our hoses hooked up, and getting that fuel transferred.

WATERS: Do you happen to know why this vessel was in this pristine area?

LYONS: No, I don't know why it was down there. I do know that we were called in at the request of the Equadorian government to assist with this fuel transfer operation. That's what we're down there for. And we're going to do everything we can to assist them in that capacity. We hope that whatever fuel that remains on the vessel will be moved by sometime tonight, and thus taking away the further threat to the environment.

WATERS: OK, thanks for taking time to talk with us, Tod Lyons, chief petty officer for the U.S. Coast Guard. There is a strike force organized out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, that's part of the team that's already on scene in the Galapagos.

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