MADRID, Spain – An oil tanker carrying 20 million gallons of fuel oil broke in two and sank Tuesday in the Atlantic Ocean, threatening a spill nearly twice as big as the Exxon Valdez's and an environmental catastrophe along a scenic Spanish coastline.
The hope was that the oil would sink and harden in waters more than two miles deep before it could inflict disaster and engulf the area's rich fishing grounds. But it has already soiled 125 miles of Spanish coastline, and its highly viscous and toxic load is far bigger than the 10.92 million gallons dumped off Alaska by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
As the Bahamas-flagged tanker Prestige sank, it leaked between 800,000 to 1.02 million gallons of oil, according to government estimates. SMIT, the Dutch salvage company hired to keep the ship afloat, estimated the spillage at 13 percent of its load. Nor was it clear much oil might reach land, or where. Portugal said it was monitoring a slick 22 miles by one-third of a mile.
Shut out of Spanish and Portuguese ports after its hull split in a storm six days ago, the tanker was towed some 150 miles out to sea off the coast of Spain's Galicia region. When it finally capsized and sank crews were already cleaning up Galicia's coast, where an estimated 800,000 gallons of oil has contaminated fisheries, blackened beaches and killed wildlife.
The calamity has highlighted concerns about older, single-hull ships like the 26-year-old Prestige that are due to be phased out by 2015 — and about what Europe should do to keep them safe and inspected in the meantime.
The European Union charged Tuesday that single-hull ships skirt European ports to avoid tough new EU-mandated inspection rules. It urged national governments to work harder to enforce them.
Spain said the ship had not been inspected since 1999, but the ship's Greece-based management company, Universe Maritime Ltd., claimed the vessel underwent an inspection last May.
At stake in Spain's misty, green, northwest corner is a fishing and seafood industry that feeds much of the country and does more than $330 million in annual business. It employs tens of thousands of people who catch, process or sell everything from monkfish to mussels.
Fuel oil, used to power ship engines and electricity plants, is harder to clean up than the crude spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Crude disperses in sea water but fuel oil turns to sticky lumps.
"It's a big, sticky, gooey mess — a bit like molten asphalt," said Unni Einemo, senior editor at Bunkerworld, a London-based news service for the marine fuels industry.
On Tuesday, soldiers and volunteers were still cleaning up the beaches between Cape Finisterre north to the city of A Coruna, about 370 miles northwest of Madrid. Dozens of inlets and coves were coated in thick oil, while up to 150 animals, mostly seabirds, were taken away for treatment.
"We've seen many dead fish and birds and many others in agony when we rescue them," said Ezequiel Navio, of the World Wildlife Fund's Spanish branch ADENA.
The Spanish government declined to estimate economic or ecological damage.
The hope is that most of the fuel oil went down with the ship. "If it sinks into cold water, this stuff solidifies so much that it basically stays there," said Einemo.
Greenpeace said it wasn't so sure. "We hope that the sunken part does not spill its fuel. But still it's a time bomb at the bottom of the sea," said Maria Jose Caballero who heads the environmental group's coastal protection project.
"There's nothing that makes us believe it won't finally burst and leak all its oil," she added. "It's insoluble, viscous and sticky, which makes it difficult for the clean-up operations."
Northwest Spain suffered a disastrous spill 10 years ago when the Greek tanker Aegean Sea ran aground and lost 21.5 million gallons near A Coruna, along a shipwreck-prone shore known as the "coast of death."
The ship is owned by Liberian-registered Mare Shipping Inc. But it will be represented in damage claims by Universe Maritime, said a spokesman for the latter, Stephen Askins.
Mare Shipping's only office is in Monrovia but through the ship's managers the firm is eager to work with Spanish authorities, insurance companies and international maritime insurance funds, Askins said.
"There is no suggestion that the owner, as a small Liberian company, would be expecting people to try to find it in Liberia and register their claims," Askins said. "I don't need to tell you how big this is as an incident."
The new EU inspection measures were adopted after the 1999 Erika oil spill polluted 250 miles of French coastline.
They require port authorities to check at least 25 percent of all ships coming into dock, starting with older, single-hull vessels. Priority goes to ships flying "flags of convenience" — or registered in countries with lax safety, labor or tax rules.